Once a destination of choice for immigrants looking to work in factories during the Industrial Revolution, Worcester has retained its multiculturalism. With its newest mix of immigrants from such destinations as Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, India, Latin America, parts of Europe, and the Middle East, numerous languages are spoken around the city every day.
The trick from a community perspective is to ensure that this vast diversity is an asset that not only distinguishes Worcester’s culture and history, but also its educational institutions, economy, and civic life. This is the motivation of community officials, business leaders, educators, parents, and youth to gather for the Worcester GradNation Community Summit  on Friday, March 17.
“What this conference is really about is the GradNation’s national movement to reduce the dropout rate. The goal is to increase the national graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020,” explained Hilda Ramirez, assistant director of the Latino Education Institute  at Worcester State University. “These summits are an opportunity to work on local strategies to improve graduation rates. Because Worcester is so diverse and has so many languages spoken here, we have decided to focus on this issue. That is why we chose the theme ‘Language of Excellence.’”
“We’re trying to bring both sides of the spectrum together: those whose first language isn’t English and English-speaking students who want to learn another language. It’s really needed in the work force, and we often do those separately,” she said. “We also know that to get into colleges like Worcester State, students need to have good language skills.”
The summit is the last of 100 GradNation Community Summits  held in communities across the country over four years and co-sponsored by America’s Promise Alliance as part of its GradNation campaign. The premier sponsor of the summit initiative is AT&T. Its support is part of AT&T Aspire, the company’s $350 million commitment to graduate more students from high school ready for college and career.
Worcester State’s World Languages Department  will help facilitate discussions about language. Assistant Professor of World Languages Antonio Guijarro-Donadios, Ph.D., will moderate “Language of Excellence: A Statewide Conversation.” Several youth will discuss challenges they have encountered while trying to develop the skills necessary for success in college, jobs, and civic life.
He will also moderate the response panel designed to address their comments and offer solutions that will include Nyal Fuentes of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Mary Jo Marion, assistant vice president of urban affairs and executive director of the Latino Education Institute; Bertha Elena Rojas, manager of English language learners for Worcester Public Schools; and Anna O’Connor, a senior program manager at Jobs for the Future.
Assistant Professor of World Languages Naida Saavedra, Ph.D., will join Michelle Huaman of the Worcester Public Schools and several WPS students in a discussion about what students need to be ready for college and careers, especially careers in the languages.
Organizers intend for the summit to be a launching pad for the development of a multi-year community action plan that outlines how Worcester will accelerate efforts to raise the high school graduation rates for students whose first language is not English. This plan will include a series of metrics and a process for evaluating progress.
“Worcester State University puts a high value on the achievement of students for whom English is not the first language,” said President Barry M. Maloney. “Our Latino Education Institute is a model for working with families to support the social and academic skills development from kindergarten through high school, which in turn helps lead to college completion. I am heartened to see so many come together on this topic for the GradNation Community Summit.”
In addition to the Latino Education Institute and Worcester Public Schools, the Worcester Education Collaborative, Worcester Regional Research Bureau, Greater Worcester Community Foundation, African Community Education, and Ascentria will be among those taking part in the summit.
“Worcester is the second largest city in New England and among the most diverse,” added Marion. “This gathering will help the community strategize about how to use the language and cultural assets of our residents to improve our global standing and increase graduation rates.”