By Barbara Thomas
The Latino population in the United States is steadily increasing, as is the number of Latino children enrolled in American schools. Many of these students are suffering academically and educators are seeking solutions to the problem.
“Latino students’ academic outcomes in the U.S. are not what we want to see, and as we considered how to address the achievement gap, we realized their voices were absent,” said Jason G. Irizarry, Ed.D., associate professor of multicultural education at the University of Connecticut and faculty associate at UConn’s Institute for Puerto Rican and Latino Studies.
Accordingly, Irizarry worked with Latino youth in conducting research for his book, “The Latinization of U.S. Schools: Successful Teaching and Learning in Shifting Cultural Contexts.”
Irizarry’s book was published in 2011 and he won the 2012 Phillip C. Chin Book Award from the National Association for Multicultural Education. Since then interest in the book has grown and he has been traveling around the country doing speaking engagements.
“Hopefully we’re starting a groundswell,” Irizarry said. “For the first time, we’re discussing how educators can learn to teach Latino students more effectively.”
A former New York City middle school teacher, Irizarry has extensively studied the challenges facing urban schools, including teacher retention and the need for more educators of color. His work focuses on promoting the academic achievement of youth in urban schools by addressing issues associated with teacher education.
His belief in youth participatory action research was put into play when he partnered with Latino youth in writing the book.
“To involve them, I worked with students on research teams and we came up with recommendations,” Irizarry said. Together they critiqued school academics and discipline enforcement and addressed the issue of student identity and culture. “They do not see themselves as smart,” he said.
Irizarry co-wrote seven of the book’s nine chapters with the students. “It has the perspective of youth,” he said. “The book is narrated by the voice of the population.”
The students Irizarry worked with were not high-achievers in school yet were capable of conducting research. “We’ve shown that they are able to do high-level work,” he said. “Some blame Latino children or their families but schools don’t do enough in addressing the students’ lack of academic achievement.”
Irizarry spoke recently at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford after receiving an invitation from Madeline Perez, Ph. D., director of the university’s Institute for Latino Community Practice.
Perez said that Latino students are motivated by seeing some of themselves in leaders such as teachers and policy makers.
“One of our goals is to train them to become future teachers,” Irizarry said. “Who better than them to teach the next population?” he added.
However, many Latino youth are not taking the courses required for enrolling in a four-year college, he said. “We thought they were being advised appropriately but found out they were not,” Irizarry said.
Latino youth’s lack of education has national economic implications, he said. “If we don’t educate them more effectively and we lose half the population from high school, these young people won’t be able to put money into the economy,” Irizarry said. “We’ll lose out on the resources of an entire population. We need to pay it forward.”
That’s especially important given the increasing number of Latinos living all around the United States. “It’s interesting that the Latino population is growing fastest in non-traditional communities,” he said.
Perez said that Greater Hartford is the second largest metro area in the country for its percentage of Hispanic population. “It’s very timely that we are expanding our Latino programs at USJ,” she said.
Previously a community organizer in New York City, Perez has been at USJ for four years. Saint Joseph has been offering Latino programming for 10 years, she said, but has made a renewed commitment to the Latino community that accompanied an overall emphasis on growth when the name was changed to University of Saint Joseph last year.
She is in the process of assessing all programs and will come up with a strategic plan later this year that will result in a vision and strategy for developing academic, research, and community outreach programs that will support diversity and be culturally relevant.
Perez said that USJ’s efforts in recruiting Latino students have shown a need to engage them at a younger age, and she has begun speaking to middle school youth.
As described on USJ’s website, the Institute for Latino Community Practice is committed to preparing undergraduate and graduate students for culturally and linguistically competent leadership in their professions and creating a community of learners dedicated to advancement of knowledge and best practices to serve the Latino population.
“It’s a wonderful initiative and Dr. Perez is bringing the Institute to another level,” Irizarry said. “Her work is speaking to what needs to be done.”
Perez teaches a popular course called “Latinas and Their Worlds” that she opens up for the public to attend every October. “We’re looking at other courses that will attract community engagement,” she said.
By Barbara Thomas