Bridging the Latino Education Gap

September 13, 2019
By: Guest Contributor

The Latino Education Institute Helps a Growing Population Break Down Barriers to College

It’s a conundrum that speaks to basic human fairness on one level, and the economic bottom line on another.

Latinos in Massachusetts are falling behind in all major indicators for achieving academic success, especially in graduating from college, and yet they represent the fastest growing population in the commonwealth. If the quest for an equitable society is not motivation enough, the need for a sustainable, skilled workforce that meets the needs of a knowledge-based economy adds urgency to efforts to address the imbalance.

Worcester State is uniquely positioned to tackle the Latino educational gap thanks to 20 years of work in the Worcester community by its Latino Education Institute (LEI). Created in 1999 by a coalition of community and elected leaders, parents, and educators, LEI has leveraged a strong connection to the University by building culturally sensitive programs and informed policy work on a foundation of academic research and outcome assessments.

“We like to say we have one foot in the community and one in the university, which is what sets our programs apart,” says LEI Executive Director Hilda Ramirez.

“We have commissioned several research projects from Worcester State faculty members that guide, improve, and validate our work. And Worcester State students, some of whom attended LEI programs themselves, are our best assets as mentors and role models.”

With data reflecting successful outcomes from its comprehensive K-16 programs, LEI is expanding its reach to other cities in Massachusetts with similar challenges, including Springfield and Southbridge, with the goal of creating a model that can be unpacked and owned by community partners in other cities.

“Our model adjusts to each framework because we keep it simple,” says Mary Jo Marion, assistant vice president for urban affairs. “Our work is about engaging with young people and building on the assets the community has. We recognize the Latino culture is a strength.”

Defining the Challenge

Overall numbers presented at the Department of Higher Education’s Statewide Trustee Conference this spring paint a clear picture of who is succeeding educationally in Massachusetts, and—more importantly—who is not. Latino men, especially, lagged behind in all indicators: high school graduation, college enrollment, and overall college achievement.

According to DHE statistics, while 72 percent of white males enrolled in college in 2016, just over 50 percent of Latino males enrolled. And while 59 percent of white males attained a college degree in 2018, Latino college attainment hovers in the 25 percent range. Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago cited those alarming statistics in announcing that equity would be the sole strategic focus of the DHE’s policy work going forward.

Commissioner Santiago’s aims are in sync with the commitment President Barry M. Maloney made in 2016 with the Five Points of Action Toward a More Inclusive Campus Climate initiative.

“That initiative, in part—and what I like about what the commissioner is doing—acknowledges that we’ve got work to do to help these students succeed. It acknowledges that demographic changes in the state are happening and that we need to be prepared to support an increased population of underrepresented students,” Maloney says.

As Maloney indicates, colleges that ignore the Latino market do so at their own risk. The recent closures of several small, tuition-dependent private institutions have called attention to the shrinking demographic of 18-year-olds in New England. Compounding that reality is the fact that while 81 percent of high school graduates in Massachusetts were white and 6 percent Latino in 2002, that ratio is predicted to shift to 56 percent white and 22 percent Latino by 2032. On a purely business-model level, addressing barriers to Latino educational opportunity becomes essential for the long-term survival of institutions of higher education.

Several years ago, Worcester State faculty dove into the roots of these barriers in a seminal report that continues to validate and influence LEI programs.

The 2016 Latino Men’s Paths to Post-Secondary Education in Urban Massachusetts, authored by Urban Studies Chair and Professor Thomas Conroy, Ph.D., Mary Jo Marion, and Professor Timothy Murphy, Ph.D., along with M.I.T. Professor Elizabeth Setren, analyzed why fewer than six percent of Latino young men who entered the ninth grade in the state’s urban areas completed a four-year degree. And only one-third of Latino students who entered college had graduated six years later.

The authors identified several factors for why Latinos are not succeeding in comparison to other communities, based on an analysis of five Massachusetts cities (Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Holyoke, and Lawrence). According to the report, Latinos:

  • Did not view higher education as important for achieving success;
  • Thought that the cost of college put it out of reach;
  • Got sidetracked during the middle school years, which can be a difficult yet defining period;
  • Dealt with common challenges such as poverty, low English skills, and high mobility.

Programs offered by LEI aim to address those issues in a strategic way, Maloney says. “They have been doing this for almost 20 years now, in collaboration with Worcester State and the community, and that should be celebrated. They have helped all of us on campus come together to think of ways that we can prepare ourselves for this inevitable demographic change and how to support our students and show them how much we value them,” he says.

A Worcester Public Schools Partnership

Each year, almost 650 Worcester Public School students participate in LEI’s signature programs, which start in elementary school and continue through college and beyond.

“We have programs at all stages of a student’s life cycle. We’re not constantly in their lives, but at major touch points to keep them on track,” says Ramirez.

After-school elementary programs focus on academic and social support, early college awareness and career exploration. Middle school programs explore identity, leadership development, and healthy relationships that lead to good life choices. And in high school, Latino students—who often are in the first-generation of their families to go to college—learn college search strategies, including the nuts and bolts of the testing, application, and financial aid processes. Dual enrollment programs also allow students to experience college-level courses while still in high school, and earn college credit at the same time.

Much of LEI’s work involves challenging misconceptions about access to college or filling in the gaps in knowledge about the importance of higher education as an avenue to success. Among the best ambassadors are Worcester State students, who are often hired as facilitators in the after-school programs.

“‘Near peers’ are essential because when they talk to younger students about the importance of education, the conversation is different,” says Marion.

Christian Santana ’21, for example, found a lifeline in LEI at ENLACE (Encouraging Latinos to Achieve Excellence) when he came to Worcester from Puerto Rico in 2011 with limited English skills

“ENLACE was somewhere to have social conversations and create a little group of friends in a fun setting. It was a non-stressful place to meet other people like me who were having some of the same challenges,” says Santana, who is now entering his junior year at Worcester State as a Spanish and education double major with his sights set on becoming a teacher. He says he is very grateful for the opportunities ENLACE gave him, and now works as a facilitator in the program.

“ENLACE is really about creating relationships with the kids, getting them to trust you and giving them someone they can talk to and rely on to give help, whether it’s about school work or problems at home,” he says. “I can put myself in their shoes because I’ve been there. I know it’s not easy, and there are many outside influences. They need a role model to show there is a way to success.”

Culturally in Tune

Ramirez says the goal is not for everyone to learn English exclusively and lose what makes Latinos special. “We encourage bilingualism as a way of honoring the culture and keeping those values from home,” she says. “Family is very important so we welcome all family members to participate, from the youngest to the oldest.”

Subtle inclusive efforts involve offering information in both English and Spanish, incorporating food and music into celebrations, and using culturally appropriate books for literacy projects.

Isalby Juveny Martinez, a community member who has taken advantage of many LEI programs, says that cultural respect is important.

“They take all the good things about our culture—dance, music, reading, family support—and use that to make people feel comfortable and included in the programs,” she says.

The mother of three settled in Worcester 14 years ago from her native Dominican Republic. Shortly after arriving, her oldest son participated in the after-school program called ISLA (Innovative Services for Latino Achievers) at Chandler Magnet, which provided him with fun activities to improve his English, learn more about the Spanish language, and connect with other Latino students from other schools, some of whom became his best friends.

Now her youngest, 11-year old Ciarra, is enjoying the LASO (Latina Achievers in Search of Success) after-school program for sixth grade girls at Woodland Street Academy. Martinez also participated in the WIPLE (Worcester Institute for Parent Leadership in Education) program, a collaboration between LEI and the Worcester Public Schools to help Latino families understand grades, testing, and the public school system in general.

“There was a lot of confusion about information coming from the schools,” Martinez says. “I wanted to learn about the different tests my kids were taking and what the scores meant. What about registration? Many parents, especially those who don’t speak English, have no idea at all what’s going on.”

Unpacking the Model

LEI expanded into Springfield in 2014 as the city struggled to find solutions to a failing school system. Rather than risk losing control through a state receivership takeover, the city embraced an Empowerment Zone model, a collaboration among Springfield Public Schools, the Springfield Education Association, and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education. In the model, 11 Springfield public schools operate “with a unique set of conditions that put critical educational decisions in the hands of teachers and school leaders,” according to the Empowerment Zone website.

“We were well received by the Empowerment-Zone schools. It’s a good match because they have the ability to be innovative, whereas regular school districts are more restricted,” says Marion, who continues to lead the Springfield outreach. LEI initially worked with Springfield Technical Community College and now partners with community-based organizations and school systems. LEI’s Springfield efforts are currently only grant funded, but expanding Worcester State’s presence in Springfield on a more permanent basis may make sense as the University’s admissions recruiting strategies expand beyond Worcester County.

More recently, LEI branched out to Southbridge, a city with a 42 percent Latino population that is approaching similar challenges in a different way: The state put the school system in receivership in 2016 due to low graduation rates and failing test scores. Despite the difference in how Springfield and Southbridge are approaching turnaround efforts, LEI’s programs are flexible enough to meet specific school needs.

“We tailor what we offer to fit the needs of the school system. We don’t have a cookie cutter approach. We don’t give the schools a menu for them to pick from,” says Marion.

Daniel Triana ’18 was one of the first people hired when LEI expanded its services to Southbridge in the fall of 2018. In addition to his role as a family facilitator during the academic year, he now coordinates the summer program in Southbridge, a free camp that provides transportation, food, and activities that are both fun and educational.

In the summer program, students in sixth to ninth grades can participate in one of two tracks: Reader’s Theater or Photo Voice. Reader’s Theater participants read a culturally relatable book and then put on a play based on the book. Student in Photo Voice use DSLR cameras to take photos of things that impact them in their community—for example, litter, graffiti, or the condition of recreational spaces—with the ultimate goal of advocating for change at the end of the summer. Field trips are involved, including coming to the Worcester State campus.

“Now there is something for kids to do, both after school and in the summer, and it’s all free. That’s a big plus for the community,” Triana says.

Seeing the Big Picture

While on-the-ground community programs and advocacy make a difference to individuals in the Latino community, the public policy work to address “big picture” issues may make an even greater impact. Part of LEI’s mission is to link scholars, policy experts, public officials, and community advocates to formulate these systemic changes.

Marion is co-chairing a new iteration of Worcester’s Commission on Latino Advancement and Education with Quinsigamond Community College President Dr. Luis G. Pedraja. The commission is tasked with recommending to city leaders the strategies and actions that will ensure Latino students fulfill their full potential, from early education through higher education and workforce development.

“That’s why being based in a university is important. We can rely on faculty in a knowledge rich environment to guide our policy recommendations,” says Marion.

Leveraging this expertise in another way, Worcester State will host “In Pursuit of Equity, Accountability, and Success,” a statewide conference on Friday, Oct. 4. The objective is “to unite multiple systems and sectors around community, policy, and practitioner-centered solutions to addressing the current system of unequal outcomes in educational attainment and institutional treatment.”

In addition to Marion, organizers of the conference include practitioners and system representatives, including Nyal Fuentes from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Elena Quiroz of the Department of Higher Education, Carmen Veloria from American Student Assistance, and Cynthia Orellana and Febian Ardila from UMass Boston, and education advocates Melissa Colon and Marta Rosa.

“The goal is not just marginal change in policy or practice, but shifts to create a culture of broad ownership over racial equity,” says Marion. [Visit for more information about the conference.]

The Human Touch

Look no further than first-year student Erika Guaman as an example of LEI’s influence. In seventh grade, the Ecuadorian native came to Worcester via Spain with limited English skills and participated in many LEI after-school programs throughout her time in the Worcester Public Schools. What she found was a warm and supportive community in LEI.

“LEI means having people who were checking up on me. They gave me support and trust. When I had a question, I always had someone to contact,” she says.

Guaman is entering Worcester State as a sociology major—an academic field she discovered in her LEI classes—because she wants to understand how her community works. She’s keeping an open mind about her career goals; people tell her she should be a teacher, but she’s also considering law school.

“I want to help the community out in the way it has helped me. I want to help families, and the community and society in general. I always had a mom and dad for support, but others who live here don’t have that strong family support,” she says. “LEI kept me pursuing my goals. That’s what everyone needs.”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2019 Worcester State Magazine [].

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