Focus

Tapping Into Mexican Resources To Educate Latinos

by Verdi N. Avila

U.S. classrooms are increasingly populated by students of diverse ethnicity, language and cultural background. The education of Latino students, the fastest growing immigrant group, poses several challenges.

Clearly, NCLB's adequate yearly progress measures have exposed Latino students as an underserved subgroup whose failings show up through the data on graduation rates, dropout rates and academic achievement.

The current federal discourse on banishing undocumented immigrants has served to marginalize their educational progress. Many students suffer academic failure as a result of flawed approaches to increase their English proficiency.

One Avenue
One answer for improving Latino educational outcomes may be found in a program developed by several significant entities in Mexico, including the National Institute for Adult Education and the Institute of Mexicans Abroad created by President Vincente Fox. Known as "Plaza Comunitaria," (www.conevyt.org.mx), the program integrates technology at an optimum level and is available to schools in the United States at no cost.
"Plaza Comunitaria" (Community Plaza), an online education program, offers a variety of courses covering basic literacy skills, courses for elementary, middle school, work-related courses, English as a second language, domestic violence prevention and child-rearing mini-courses. The success of this initiative has been noticeable in Mexico.

Originally designed for students 15 years and older, these courses can be used by U.S. schools to place newly arrived Spanish speakers in subjects in their native language. In this way, students receive continuity in subject matter while learning English, allowing them to keep pace with their English-speaking peers in content knowledge. In addition to the Plaza Comunitaria curriculum, high school courses (Bachillerato) are available from Mexico for $8 each from a separate education entity.

Stateside GrowthSeveral states are aligning their curricula to the Plaza curricula and in Mexico, educators continue to work on bridging the Plaza curriculum by adding other content courses to help Latino students succeed. Currently 231 Plazas Comunitarias operate in 32 states with some of the programs housed in federal penitentiaries.

In Georgia, 10 Plaza Comunitarias have opened in different parts of the state to improve the academic achievement of Latinos, many of whom are children of migrant workers. In Athens, the public library and an arts center jointly opened a Plaza in a trailer park, offering courses not only for Latinos but also to Americans interested in learning Spanish. We hope to replicate the Athens model in rural Georgia.

Washington state has more than 200 students and nearly 600 parents registered for online educational courses to improve their academic and personal skills with 174 trained site coordinators. A statewide panel aligned the Mexican courses with Washington standards, although each school district determines the courses it will accept toward graduation. Beginning in 2008, students must pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning in English to graduate.

Mexico recently piloted in 16 of its own states an English language course designed by one of their scientists. The course targets 6th graders using interactive software and a smart board. At the end of the pilot, named "ingles enciclomedia" (coined from encyclopedia, media and English), students achieved a score of 8 on a 10-point scale, and their teachers (non-English speakers) achieved a similar score.

The "ingles enciclomedia" proved so successful that the Secretariat of Education is now implementing it in Mexico's 32 states, covering all subjects in grades 5 and 6. All course contents are digitized, offering thousands of interactive multimedia options. The enciclomedia concept will be phased in as courses are developed.

U.S. schools can use these ESOL courses for additional hands-on tasks for non-English speakers. These online programs are available to Spanish speakers regardless of country of origin with Mexico providing diplomas for students completing courses at their respective levels.

Teachers of Spanish can use the website to improve their own language skills and assign homework to better prepare students for the AP Spanish courses and exams.

Formal Agreements
Educators from the United States and Canada, who have viewed Mexico's educational offerings, including the enciclomedia, encouraged the ministry of education to disseminate information regarding these resources to educators abroad.

School districts can obtain these resources by entering into an agreement with Mexico. With 47 consulates (www.sre.gob.mx/acerca/directorio/consulados/dirconsulados.htm) across the United States, school districts can contact consulate personnel to assist with their agreement. When the agreement is signed, the Mexican agency provides each Plaza Comunitaria with textbooks, online curriculum, videos, CDs and rights to duplicate curriculum materials.

The coordinator supervising the Plaza must be fluent in English and Spanish and trained in Plaza curriculum and assessments. School districts provide the computers and technology support. Mexico periodically brings trainers at its own expense to provide support and training for new staff.

Tapping Mexican resources, U.S. schools can ensure that Latino students are not left behind and instead steadily advance on the path toward academic success.

Verdi Avila is comprehensive needs assessment coordinator in migrant education for the Georgia Department of Education, 205 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive S.E. Atlanta, GA 30344. E-mail: vavila@doe.k12.ga.us