By: Yvonne Ruiz, Ph.D.,, LICSW
Much of the research on academic achievement among Latino youth presents data that document low levels of school success, high drop-out rates, and low levels of college completion (Kewal Ramani, Gilbertson, Fox, & Provasnik, 2007). According to results from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), Latinos in middle school have significant gaps in reading and mathematics achievement as compared with their non-Hispanic white and Asian student counterparts (Kewal Ramani, Gilbertson, Fox, & Provasnik, 2007). The educational disparities faced by Latino children and youth in the United States begin in early schooling experiences and persist throughout all levels of education (it is important to note that “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably here, as both terms are frequently used in the literature to refer to individuals of Cuban, Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and South and Central American descent who are residing in the U.S.).
Low Academic Achievement Among Latino Youth
Low academic achievement can lead to discouragement and low aspirations among Latino youth. These feelings are compounded by the risk factors associated with academic underachievement among Latinos, such as minority status, discriminatory experiences, low socioeconomic status, institutional barriers at school, greater probability of placement in special education and remedial tracks, and limited English proficiency (Ruiz, 2009). Findings from the Pew Hispanic Center suggest that a large percentage of 16- to 25-year-old Latinos cut their education short because of a dislike of school and a feeling that they don’t need more education for the careers they want (Lopez, 2009). These findings point to vulnerability among Latino youth toward developing a sense of emotional detachment or withdrawal from school.
Emotional detachment from school is a serious problem that includes low levels of motivation and interest and may result in the denigration of school values and, ultimately, in withdrawal from school (Voelkl, 1997). For Latino youth, emotional detachment may result in feelings of alienation within the school community, limited supportive sources, and negative teacher expectations. Conversely, students who identify with school and feel a connection with the academic culture of school experience school much more positively and are more motivated to achieve. A recent study found that identification with school was the strongest predictor of academic achievement for Latino youth (Ruiz, 2009).
Identification With School
Identification with school is defined by a set of psychosocial processes that include behavioral and emotional components (Voelkl, 1997). Students connect to school through behavioral factors such as active classroom participation, participation in activities, valuing learning experiences, and striving to do well in school. Emotionally, students connect through feelings of being accepted and respected, and feeling that education is important, useful, valued, and rewarding. Overall, Latino youth who demonstrate identification with school are prepared in class, are more actively engaged, are connected with their teachers, enjoy school activities, and earn good grades. Advocates for Latino youth suggest that schools are able to foster school identification by establishing a supportive and inclusive environment.
School Social Workers Promoting Identification With School
School social workers are in a unique position to foster school identification among Latino youth. This is because of their professional orientation toward relational models of engagement that naturally support feelings of connection and belongingness that are central to identification with school. Social workers can be leaders in promoting coordination and communication among students and teachers that promote school identification. Workers can meet individually with students to strengthen identification with school, develop support groups and mentoring programs to create more supportive environments, and join with teachers and school staff to establish effective school practices.
Contact with teachers is a particularly important aspect of the school identification process, and students who feel respected as individuals are likely to form positive relationships with teachers and school staff. Social workers can facilitate contact with teachers in the classroom and with other school staff through structured, as well as informal, extracurricular activities. Helping students and teachers connect is an important function of school social work.
School social workers can serve as advocates in representing the voices of the students. Workers who demonstrate support for students and validate their contributions also strengthen school identification by reinforcing feelings of school membership and competence. These feelings may be further strengthened by a curriculum that includes topics related to Hispanic history and heritage that are directly connected with students’ lives and experiences. Workers who develop youth leadership opportunities and help integrate Hispanic-themed content in the curricula also help create a safe and inviting school environment.
The importance of the family is a cultural value in Latino culture, and social workers can also strengthen identification with school through collaboration with Latino parents. Latino parents frequently report being misunderstood, misinterpreted, or not listened to by school personnel. Similarly, school staff report frustration and inability to communicate problems or expectations to Latino parents. This situation can have a negative impact on how Latino youth feel about how they are accepted and respected within the school and by staff. Collaboration acknowledges the importance of support and reinforcement at home by parents and extended family members, and it improves parents’ connections and meaningful contributions to the school.
Efforts to optimize academic and social competence, establish caring and supportive relationships, and create welcoming school cultures, can change Latino students’ life chances. The risk factors associated with academic underachievement and school failure are well documented, including poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, incarceration, and poor health outcomes. School social workers can play a pivotal role by promoting school identification, thereby strengthening academic achievement among Latino youth.
Kewal Ramani, A., Gilbertson, L., Fox, M.A., & Provasnik, S. (2007). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic minorities, NCES 2007-039, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC.
Lopez, M. H. (2009). Latinos and education: Explaining the attainment gap. Pew Hispanic Center, Washington, DC. Available at http://www.pewhispanic.org.
Ruiz, Y. (2009). Predictors of academic achievement for Latino middle schoolers. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 19 (4), 419-433.
Voelkl, K. (1997). Identification with school. American Journal of Education, 105, 294-317.
Yvonne Ruiz, Ph.D., LICSW, is MSW Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor of Social Work at Salem State University.