WSA Program Proving that Children Born into Poverty Can Succeed Academically

The Washington State Achievers (WSA) program, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is based on the premise that every student in the United States deserves the chance to go to college. Most U.S. high school students want to attend college. They recognize that higher education is the most direct path to success in their future careers. College also provides opportunities to explore talents and develop leadership skills they can use to participate more fully in adult life – at home, at work and in their communities.

The problem is that millions of students can’t afford the tuition. The Gates Foundation estimates that between 2005 and 2016 nearly 4.5 million students won’t pursue higher education because of cost. Low-income students and those of color are particularly hard hit. Only one in 10 low-income students can expect to graduate from college. And disproportionately fewer students of color earn bachelor’s degrees. This is not due to a lack of talent but rather the high costs of tuition, plus the fact that many graduate from high school without the skills they need to succeed in college. They also lack guidance on how to choose a school, apply for admission, and fill out financial aid forms. The Gates Foundation promises to help more than 27,000 low-income students get to college by 2016. The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) provided extensive summaries of multiple studies conducted on the WSA program.

“Research showed that pre-college interventions are needed to touch on all barriers facing lowincome students when they attempt to obtain a baccalaureate degree,” says Greg Kienzl, Ph.D., IHEP’s director of research and evaluation. “For example, the WSA’s high school reform component includes decreasing class size, creating a personalized learning environment and adjusting teaching styles and curricular requirements.” These were criteria for schools wanting to become recipients of the program; and the adoption of these components, Kienzl says, “all led to improvements in the number of students ready for college.”

The WSA program began with 10 cohorts, each one with 500 students from 16 schools, covering 10 years of giving, finishing this June. The grants in the WSA program amounted to close to $130 million to 16 schools in 13 districts. A newer and similar program has been initiated in Washington, D.C., but this time focused on six high schools in a single district, the funding here about $160 million.

As a strikingly dramatic illustration of the success of the Gates program, we turn to the Mabton School District in Mabton, Wash. Sandra Pasiero-Davis, who recently retired after six years as district superintendent, describes Mabton as a small rural farming community in Eastern Washington. “There is nothing here but agriculture, and over 90 percent of our community is Hispanic,” she explains. “And we have a variety of Hispanic populations, for Hispanic does not mean just one thing.”

Attending the school are children of migratory parents of one to three generations back who have settled in that community. There are other children of parents who are still migratory workers, but who have settled in Mabton as a home base. Some students are offspring of non-English-speaking parents; these children speak Spanish at home and English at school. Some children do not speak Spanish even though they are of Hispanic ethnicity. There is a small population of students who do not speak English. A few children are White, and a smaller number are Native American.

Not surprisingly, this diversity presented many challenges. “One of the problems we struggled with along the way is that teachers don’t come out of college prepared for this huge range of diversity in the classroom,” Pasiero- Davis says. “The notion that a teacher can work all summer evolving lesson plans that can be used is a myth. It’s not going to happen. For all that preparation is for a mythical being who will not show up in the classroom on that first day.”

Moreover, there is the additional challenge in that the teachers are predominantly White middle class. “Teachers have to develop not only the competencies to design lessons to meet the students’ needs, they also have to gain the cultural skills to see the strengths and assets the students bring, and not their weaknesses.” Much of the Gates money was used to develop the teachers’ professional skills in this regard. And both administrators and teachers spend considerable amounts of time evolving strategies that are effective.

“One of the things we do is have an early dismissal every Friday, so we can sit down with the teaching staff and have a critical discussion. We gather data, some of it academic and numeric, some of it perceptual and qualitative, and some of it teacher experience,” Pasiero-Davis continues.

“We add it all together and ask pointed questions. What do we know? What are we missing? What can we do, and who do we need to help us? We develop our own strengths, as well as those of our teachers, so they become collaborators, rather than being isolated and feeling they have to wing it on their own. It’s a very powerful process.”

Asked whether things went relatively smoothly or there were many ups and downs, Pasiero- Davis laughs and quips, “Oh, it was all smooth sailing.” But then she adds, “Yes, there were ups and downs. But initially, we had a very simple theory, namely, that to help our high school students become college ready, they should have a strong relationship with their teachers, coaches and administrators. For those students who had such a relationship would tend to do better than those who did not.”

Another theory put into practice, continues Pasiero-Davis, “and this is counter-intuitive, that instead of relaxing our standards to adjust to the special challenges our students faced, we instead increased the academic rigor. For we felt this is what is necessary to develop the attitude and skills they needed to persist in college.”

So developing teacher skills at the same time as increasing the standards for students turned out to be a winning combination, Pasiero-Davis says. “The Gates funding eliminated the economic barrier,” she continues. “Most of our students are on free or reduced lunch cost programs, for most of the families live in poverty.” Still, success was not automatic.

“As we traveled through the years, we discovered that differentiation in teaching is essential,”

Pasiero-Davis says. “When a teacher takes on a classroom of students, some of the students have reading skills that exceed grade level, some are at grade level, and some are below. Whether you’re teaching history or science or math, if you can’t accommodate all of your students, you automatically stop a percentage from being successful. The children here who exceed grade level would be uncommonly bored if the teacher went down the middle, and the slower students would be blocked out altogether.”

This is not an unusual problem, even in conventional middle-class schools, but is exacerbated in a school with as much diversity as Mabton. Moreover, that school does not have the luxury of dividing students into three different classes of average, slow and advanced. “We’re a small school,” Pasiero-Davis says. “We can’t have three science teachers for the same class,” says Pasiero-Davis.

“So we began working on how teachers could have the same learning target, but have a different path for the different students,” she explains. “For instance, if I’m teaching a science class and I want to understand the dynamics of digestion from the time we eat until the body is done with it, there’s a lot of scientific language the student needs to know.”

What this means, she says, is that the advanced students are taught the vocabulary with a minimum of effort and then are sent off on independent projects. The struggling students are given a more intense focus on the technical terms, not on simple equivalents, and the middle student will be related to as needed.

Asked for a specific example of a specific seemingly intractable problem that’s been solved, Pasiero-Davis replies, “These problems go across a vast spectrum, but one of the most dramatic and easiest to talk about is the migratory child who does not speak English. “So what will most high school English teachers say when faced with such a child? ‘We can’t do anything with this kid because he can’t read the books?’” This can be very short-sighted, Pasiero-Davis says, but what another teacher, who is Spanishliterate, might suggest, is assigning that student an equivalent work in Spanish. “The student can read a like work of literature in Spanish, for the learning objectives are the same, the appreciation of the genre and the author’s intent, plot and character development. These are not restricted to English literature.”

One of the problems associated with idealistic philanthropic programs such as those offered by the Gates Foundation is that, says Pasiero-Davis, “It seems you throw money at apparently intractable social conditions such as people of color living in poverty, and that, as soon as the money dries up, you’re right back where you started.”

Facing this issue, Pasiero-Davis says, is “that though this was originally seen as a program for high school students, it soon became clear that we have to change our culture, to raise the expectations for all our students, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Moreover, this had to be one of the goals of our board of directors, and it had to have the dedication of all our teachers and staff. This was the toughest nut to crack.”

However, gradually all aspects of the school did buy into this entire change of attitude. Perhaps even more significantly, the parents have too. The farming families in this area have traditionally regarded all of their children as a part of their work unit. Some cropping the students can do during periods not interfering with school. But other times there is a direct conflict.

“The parents have come to sacrifice their children as economic assets in exchange for their academic progress. This is a huge sacrifice,” says Pasiero-Davis.

The result, she continues, is that, after submitting to the Gates Foundation guidelines for reducing student-teacher ratios, paying for teacher professional development skills, the use of appropriate technology, and so on, along with the changes the school has implemented on its own, is that, “after 10 years of practicing it this way, we now believe this is the way we’ve always done it. Even after the money has expired, from the student body pre-K through senior year, teachers, administrators, parents, up and down the line, we expect these kids to go to college.”

The result, says Pasiero-Davis,” is that now an astounding 80 percent of the students go to college.” But this is not yet a totally happy ending.

“The problem then is students staying in college,” Pasiero-Davis says. “But this is a problem for everybody. The Gates Foundation does keep longevity data on kids, but I don’t have those numbers in front of me. Students drop out of college from this community as well as everywhere else. There are too many life pressures, and especially if students come from a family-oriented culture, they often miss the social and moral support. Nevertheless, we have some 30 to 40 percent of those who start college graduate from a four-year college. This is about as good as if not slightly better than the national average.”

What happens to students once they leave Mabton is beyond the school’s control, however.

And Pasiero-Davis believes the core overriding problem “is the way we fund our schools. For if we believe we want a college-oriented culture, then we have to have a budget to respect that, or we’re kidding ourselves. There has to be a reciprocity between the notion embedded in our culture that all kids can go to college, and our leadership. If this is what we believe in, this is how we should pay for it.”

In view of the fact that Mabton developed this pro-college expectation that will continue even though the Gates money has run out, the question is whether Bill and Melinda Gates had something like this in mind at the start? Or were they simply experimenting?

“Rather than an experiment, this was a demonstration project,” answers Pasiero-Davis. “It set out to debunk the myth that children of color born into poverty could not succeed.” In other words, the Mabton school and community is a stunning illustration of just what the Gateses intended.

But now what? Pasiero-Davis believes both the government and the worlds of business and industry, all partnered with each other, should learn the lessons demonstrated by the Gateses, and continue the process.

But until and if that happens, how is Mabton going to sustain its new college-oriented culture and maintain high standards with state money shrunken or disappeared and no new programs such as that of Gates coming to the fore?

“We’re dedicated,” Pasiero-Davis responds.

“We love these children,” and many “are still trying to climb the ladder, even with so many of the rungs missing. The fact that the money goes away does not represent an absolute. You don’t have to go back to the default mode. You always have a choice.”

Latino Baby Boomers a New and Unexpected Challenge

In 2000, the baby boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, included about 80 million people. This has been well-known. Far less known is the fact that, of this group, about eight million are Latinos. Moreover, the older Latino population is expected to triple, growing from 6 percent of older adults in 2003 to 18 percent in 2050.

“Next year will see the first wave hitting age 65, the traditional retirement age,” says Chon Noriega, Ph.D., a professor of film, television and digital media, as well as director of the Chicano Studies Research Center, University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). “This represents a tsunami impacting Social Security and society at large, a phenomenon which has never really been taken into account before.”

“This is the first time ever in this county that anyone has taken an interest in the baby boomer cohort for Latinos,” says Fernando Torres-Gil, Ph.D., associate dean, UCLA School of Public Affairs and director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging. Torres-Gil is referring to the research conducted by him and his colleagues at UCLA, culminating in a symposium on May 11, 2010. This article is drawn from interviews with three of the participants as well as the group’s policy papers.

One clear indication of the unappreciated significance of this surge in the aging Latino population, says Carlos Haro, Ph.D., assistant director emeritus, Chicano Studies Research Center, comes from the leaders of 10 prominent groups and organizations surveyed between November 2009 and January 2010. These ranged from a health service provider to immigrant and legal rights groups to community development associations, associations of government officials and organizations that primarily serving aging populations.

While all the groups except one expressed the importance of caring for the Latino baby boomers, Haro says, “Only four had a strategic focus on serving the senior population, and only one was specifically dedicated to serving aging Latinos.” Haro adds that just three offered programs for wealth building and financial security.

Why addressing the needs of this group is important, Torres-Gil says, is that “in 20 years, Latinos will be the largest minority, ahead of African- Americans, and Latinos are already the largest group in cities such as Chicago, New York, Miami and San Antonio.” Furthermore, Torres-Gil reports, Latinos have a higher life expectancy than Whites, 79 to 80 years as opposed to 77 to 78. African-Americans live a lower average lifespan, to about 71, while Asian-Americans tend to live a little longer, approaching 81 to 82 years.

Not all Latinos are the same, of course, in life expectancy as well as many other areas. For instance, Puerto Ricans have the lowest, Mexicans are in the middle, and Cubans have the highest. An irony in that the dictatorship takes away freedom but provides universal health care.

Asked what accounts for the generally higher life expectancy of Latinos in terms of Whites, those interviewed indicate they can’t say for sure but suggest it might be because of a more spiritual orientation or better family support. They also add that the longer Latino families are in this country, by the third or fourth generation, the more they assimilate to this culture, the more their health deteriorates.

Fernando Torres-Hill

Here are some of the reasons UCLA researchers consider many aging Latinos to be a population at risk. They often tend to have minimal pension and health care benefits or no benefits at all, a result of their unmet needs in regard to education. In 2006, for example, only 59 percent of Latinos over age 25 had obtained a high school diploma, compared to 90 percent of non-Latino Whites.

This lack of education is a key problem, maintains Haro. “Many Latinos were not prepared to go into professions or take other career paths which would provide for financial security in later years,” Haro says. “So they don’t now have the pension plans and health benefits others have. They have had to go into the work force in low-paying and nonskilled jobs, with no benefits. So who is going to pay the consequences now that they are beginning to retire?”

Adds Noriega, “A general conclusion at the conference was the urgent need to increase educational attainment among school-age Latinos. In California, one-half of the kids under 6 are Latino. If you ignore the educational needs of half the population, this will adversely impact our society as a whole.” Moreover, Noriega continues, as large as the aging Latino population is, there is a much larger and ever-growing group under 40. The latter will be paying into the always-threatened Social Security fund, but, with less education and therefore less income, they will have that much less to pay into it. “The dynamic here is that Latinos are overrepresented by those paying into Social Security and underrepresented by those receiving it.”

Another relevant statistic is that Latinos have the lowest level of pension coverage; in 2001, only 25 percent participated in an employer-provided pension plan, compared to 50 percent of the overall work force. Consequently, older Latinos have a higher dependency on Social Security than does any other ethnic/racial group in the U.S. Social Security benefits provide 44 percent of their total income.

This translates directly into hardship. Researchers found that in California, Latino elders who lived alone or with only a spouse had the highest rates of economic insecurity among all elders age 65 and older. About three-fourths of Latino elders who live alone and almost half of  those who live with only a spouse cannot cover their basic costs of living. Nearly half-a-million older adults living alone in the state lacked sufficient income to pay for a minimum level of housing, food, health care, transportation and other basic needs.

Although an initial impression might be that Latinos in general are critically disadvantaged, the researchers find that this assumption is “clearly flawed,” for certain groups of Latino baby boomers are relatively well off. Nonetheless, demographic and economic characteristics paint a bleak picture for two segments of this demographic: noncitizens and those born in U.S. territories. These represent a bleak picture, for they will be under considerable financial strain as they move into their retirement years. The overall composition of the baby boomer generation has changed over the past half-century. Despite the inevitable factors of death and emigration, it has grown from about 76 million to about 80 million individuals, again, about eight million of whom are Latinos. This growth is attributable to immigration as a persistent force throughout the 20th century. The immigration that has bolstered the number of baby boomers has also created four categories of individuals. Those born as U.S. citizens can be classified as: 1) those born either in the 50 United States plus the District of Columbia or abroad to a U.S. parent; or 2) those who were born in a U.S. territory such as Puerto Rico, Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands. Immigrants fall into one of two additional categories: 3) those who are naturalized U.S. citizens; or 4) those who are not U.S. citizens.

The UCLA analysis shows that in 2000, Latino boomers born in the U.S. were usually of Mexican (60 percent) or Puerto Rican (12 percent) origin, and those who were naturalized citizens were likely to be of Mexican (50 percent) or Cuban (1 percent) origin. Latino boomers born in a U.S. territory were largely of Puerto Rican origin (95 percent). Most noncitizen Latino boomers were of Mexican origin (61 percent); the rest were of various Latin American and Spanish origins.

Latino boomers generally had less education than non-Latino boomers, with noncitizens having the lowest education levels. Latino boomers also had lower levels of English ability than non-Latino boomers. Almost all U.S.-born Latino boomers reported being fluent in English (88 percent), compared to about half of naturalized citizens (44 percent) or those born in U.S. territories (56 percent). Noncitizen Latino boomers reported low rates of English fluency (21 percent) and were far more likely to be linguistically isolated (39 percent) than other Latino groups.

Latino boomers typically lived in larger households than non-Latino boomers (an average of 4.4 persons versus 3.2 persons) and were far more likely to live in large, multifamily buildings. This likelihood increased for noncitizen Latinos and Latinos born in U.S. territories. In addition, noncitizens were one-third as likely as Latinos born in the U.S. or its territories to live alone or with only a spouse; naturalized citizens were half as likely to live in this situation. Latino boomers were split almost evenly between owning and renting, whereas non-Latino boomers were much more likely to own their homes.

A majority of U.S.-born and naturalized Latino citizens owned theirhomes (67 percent and 65 percent, respectively), but most noncitizens and citizens born in U.S. territories were renters (57 percent and 55 percent, respectively). Latino boomers also spent more of their household income on costs associated with housing. Noncitizens and citizens born in the U.S. territories spent the largest proportion of their income on housing, with about one-third of each group spending more than 30 percent. Latino baby boomers were less likely than non-Latino boomers to have incomes above the poverty line. Within the Latino boomer population, citizens born in the U.S. and naturalized citizens had the highest average incomes, followed by those born in U.S. territories and noncitizens. Latino boomers were less likely than non-Latino boomers to receive any form of income (85 percent vs. 91 percent) and were less likely to be employed (64 percent vs. 78 percent). Fewer Latino than non-Latino boomers received income from wages, self-employment, interest, pensions and other sources while more Latino boomers received income from public assistance.

Chon Noriega

The UCLA researchers found that Latinos rely on influential national and regional advocacy groups and service organizations to provide leadership and support on their behalf. These groups and organizations have had a substantial impact on a number of issues important to the Latino population in areas such as education, health, civil rights, affirmative action and immigration. They have protected Latinos’ rights and helped bring them into the mainstream of American political and socioeconomic life. But given the precarious position of Latino baby boomers and the current political debate about health care reform and the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, it has become increasingly important for advocacy groups and service organizations to address issues that have a bearing on the economic security of Latinos.

The UCLA researchers conclude with the following recommendations: All groups and organizations should be aware of the demographic shifts that are affecting U.S. society.

As information and data regarding the growing number of Latino baby boomers become available, groups and organizations should become better informed about the financial vulnerability of this population. Groups and organizations should determine how Latino baby boomers have relevance to their missions and should identify the needs that they can address.

Groups and organizations should then design programs that will meet the needs that have been identified. Programs should include those that can help Latino elders ensure their financial security through retirement programs, individual savings and home ownership. As part of their advocacy efforts, groups and organizations should also seek to strengthen Social Security by supporting reform that maintains adequate benefits and economic security in retirement.