Karla Mota hectically runs back and forth through the Youth United for Change office carrying stacks of statistics. Hurrying to finish up her day’s work before she heads home, Mota, 17, understands the importance of her and her fellow youth leader’s assignments. Mota attends Kensington CAPA High School and has been a leader with Youth United for Change for the past two years, trying her best to improve the high schools in her community.
One can find many problems with the Philadelphia School District, yet a majority of students who attend Kensington schools have a somewhat unique problem. With more than half of the region from a Latino background, certain Kensington students face a language, as well as cultural, barrier with their educators. From the outside looking in, some may say that all non-English speaking students have somewhat similar problems assimilating, yet some researchers are working to understand why Spanish-speaking students are specifically having unprecedented troubles in these schools.
Almost 50 percent of Kensington households speak Spanish with a little less than half of them claiming that they speak English less than “very well.” This language barrier can directly affect the quality of learning of Spanish speaking students, especially if they are not speaking any English at home. Kensington schools generally face low standardized test scores as well as graduation rates, so it wouldn’t seem far-fetched to say that a language barrier can only add to those dismal statistics.
Is this language barrier prevalent enough to create such a large gap between Spanish speaking students and Philadelphia students
from other backgrounds? Lucy Feria, the North Region superintendent, explained that Latino students in Kensington high schools are facing low attendance rates, low test scores and low graduation rates. Feria, who used to be the superintendent for the Kensington schools, explained her own reasoning to why some Latino students may be having problems, in addition to the language barrier. Coming from a Latino background, Feria knows first hand some of the problems Latino students face, especially Latina girls.
“More than just a language barrier is the cultural barrier, especially with young Latina women, because for them family is always supposed to come first,” explains Feria. “Girls may have to translate for grandma, do chores for mom or babysit their siblings, and those things would sometimes precede education in a lot of Latino households.”
Mota has been a youth leader at Youth United for Change for the past two years, working to change some of the statistics that are found on Latino’s in Kensington schools. Mota’s parents are from Puerto Rico, but she explained that she worked hard not to have the same barriers that many Latino youth struggle with. Even though English was not Mota’s first language, she learned quickly by having her older brother read to her in English. Mota also explained her views on why many Spanish-speaking students may have trouble in school.
“Some students would go through high school in ESL classes getting a below basic education simply because English is not their first language, and the teachers don’t understand how to educate them,” said Mota. “Also, I do think Latinos have a family first mentality. One example is my grandmother, who couldn’t finish school because her mother got sick and she had to step in as the mother figure in the family.”
Andi Perez, the executive director for Youth United for Change, is fighting to change the landscape of Latino education in Kensington schools. Perez’ strong ties to Kensington high schools come from the fact that she, as well as her sisters and cousins, graduated from the original Kensington High School. Four years ago, Perez and her organization fought to break Kensington high school into smaller schools in order to improve the quality of education. Since the high schools were broken up, attendance rates in Kensington small schools rose almost 13 percent in three years.
“Anytime you small schools the children are going to benefit from that, so now when you go by the Kensington schools you don’t see bring groups of kids hanging out as well as an immediate drop in violent instances and an immediate rise in attendance,” explained Perez.
Even though Kensington has seen some improvements since breaking up into smaller schools, Perez said that there is still a lot of work to be done. Perez added that students are still struggling academically. She said that the school district did not necessarily keep up its promises when it decided to break up the schools.
“Like what happens so many times at Kensington schools, we sort of go the short end of the stick,” said Perez. “When we pushed for Kensington to be broken up, we had also done research and we knew that there were certain essential elements of small schools, but what the district did was build a wall, divide the students, divide the teachers and hired principals two weeks in advance.”
Perez, Mota and other organizers and youth leaders involved with Youth United for Change understand that they have a long way to go but they are still fighting for a better school system. Kensington schools do have a long way to go in order for them to shorten the achievement gap with other schools, but Youth United for Change and other organizations are doing what they can to better education in primarily Latino communities.