Ed Kissam – September 2015
Rural middle and high schools play an important role in preparing Hispanic students to access and successfully complete postsecondary education. Although the gap in academic performance between rural Hispanic and white students begins in elementary school, it grows as students move into middle and high school.
In Improving Rural Hispanic Students’ Transition to College and Career, researcher Ed Kissam uses data from the 2002-12 Educational Longitudinal Survey to examine specific factors associated with educational disadvantage among rural Hispanic students. He supplements this analysis with insights from focus group discussions with rural Hispanic students in Idaho to better understand why these students are falling behind their peers on the path to college and career. Based on this information, Kissam makes several recommendations that could not only help to close the attainment gap between rural Hispanic students and their white peers but could also improve outcomes for all rural students:
Increase the representation of Hispanic teachers and paraprofessionals in rural classrooms
Only five percent of Hispanic students’ English teachers and 10 percent of their mathematics teachers are themselves Hispanic. As such, it would seem that one obvious solution to increasing teachers’ responsiveness to parent and student needs would be to hire more Hispanic teachers and counselors. In rural areas with limited resources, however, increasing experimentation with paraprofessionals may be a more promising—and feasible—option.
Provide opportunities for Hispanic parents to help their children in school and collaborate with staff
Rural schools need to invest in helping limited-English Hispanic parents discover practical ways they can help children with schoolwork. Orientations for Hispanic parents can help them understand how to work with teachers to improve their children’s learning. This outreach needs to be authentic in order to overcome the often hidden undercurrent of cultural/ethnic tensions between English-dominant school staff and teachers and limited-English parents. In rural areas, a solution more immediate than hiring Hispanic teachers and paraprofessionals may be to recruit and train promotores—staff who provide families with advice, encouragement, and assistance in unfamiliar aspects of schools and their organizational culture. This approach has been used successfully for more than four decades in health campaigns and in the Migrant Education Program.
Increase opportunities for career counseling, exploration, and experiential learning
Career counseling and orientation are important in all schools but in rural communities, where there may be a narrower range of occupations represented in the local labor market, it is critical that schools invest in alternative opportunities to build students’ career awareness. Opportunities for expanded career exploration in rural areas include online counseling, career-oriented instruction, and a program of ongoing presentations by local leaders. Another key challenge is to help students learn more about different kinds of workplaces while simultaneously practicing their communications, analytical thinking, and teamwork skills within a real-world context. Work-study and internship programs can provide these opportunities. They are often few and far between in rural areas, but can be created through initiatives such as school and industry partnerships.
Additionally, dual-enrollment programs can help students prepare for careers and allow them to gain credits that can save time and money in both traditional and community college programs. In Idaho, the PTECH initiative is helping students gain experience and transition into in-demand postsecondary programs.