Rhode Island Latino students are not getting support they need according to a new report (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“We have a crisis” – experts discuss Rhode Island’s troubling Latino achievement gap

A new report is showing that the Rhode Island school system is failing to meet the needs of the state’s growing Latino population.

According to a study released on Tuesday, Rhode Island has some of the worst achievement gaps between Latino and white students. Latino students are grade levels behind their white peers. Hispanics scored two to three levels behind their white peers in math and one or two levels behind in reading on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

The report, released by the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, also found that there was a crisis in the English Language Learner (ELL) program. Hispanics make up 75 percent of English Language Learners in the state, but ELL programs in Rhode Island are among the lowest performing in the nation. According to the report, sixty three percent of students in Providence and 72 percent of students in Central Falls are Latino.

Latino Policy Institute Director Anna Cano Morales said that the findings are particularly important because of the growing share Latinos make up of students in Rhode Island schools.

“We definitely have a crisis – the system is treating these students like a subgroup, but 3 out of 4 students in some of our cities and towns are Latino.  These systems need to be re-envisioned,” Cano Morales told NBCLatino.

One of the main problems, Cano Morales notes, is that there has been no core curriculum attached to English as a Second Language class.   “Sixty four percent of students in Providence are Hispanic, which begs the question, what are we doing to systematically offer much higher quality learning?  Our ELL students are not deficient or unintelligent; many of the challenges are more societal,” she explains. In Providence this fall, ELL students will have access to the full core curriculum rather than spending their day in English as a Second Language classes.

Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo told the Associated Press that the district is working to address challenges related to Latino achievement. She said all new hires have to be versed in teaching strategies for ELL students.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras called the report a reminder of the urgency school districts face in improving achievement for all students.  The Dominican-American Mayor recently won a $5 million dollar Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Project for championing a new program aimed to reduce the vocabulary gap between low-income and more affluent families.  Lower-income families will be able to sign up for the Providence Talks project, where a small recorder would record family conversations, much like a word pedometer, to measure preschool-aged children’s language exposure.

But while family involvement and early education is crucial, experts like Cano Morales say it is crucial that the Rhode Island educational system make fundamental changes such as ensuring children are put in the right classes and there is more preparation among ESL teachers.

And as Latino students have become the majority in many of the state’s urban school districts, Cano Morales says it is necessary to recognize they are not a ‘subgroup.’

“We can no longer afford to do that. Latino students are mainstream,” Cano Morales says. “We are Rhode Island’s future workforce.”

NBC Latino’s Sandra Lilley contributed to this story. 

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