Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Model to Show Students How to Move from Service to Action

by Ann Abbott

With so much to accomplish in one semester of our "Spanish in the Community" course, it is sometimes difficult to help students understand how the realities that they see in the community are the direct results of policy-making. In other words, we want to help students move from just thinking about "William," the little boy they work with at the school, and to see how "William" exists in a complex web of laws, regulations, and decisions that impact his life and circumstances. In simpler terms, students can do community service learning (CSL), but to change society, they need to understand more fully what it means to be active citizens.

This semester, I have a perfect example for students.

Many of our Spanish CSL students work in the bilingual classrooms at Leal Elementary School in Urbana. They tell powerful stories about their learning and the relationships they build with students and teachers there.

But in the background, the teachers and children they interact with directly are supported by the person who holds the job of "Bilingual Family Liaison." If that position is not funded, that filter down to the classroom and alter the realities for the teacher and the students.

So, my friend and colleague, Prof. Lissette Piedra, wrote the following memo, circulated it among engaged faculty, sent it to the Urbana school board, testified at the school board meeting, and sent a copy to the beat reporter from the News Gazette, our local newspaper.

What were the results? The position was saved! For now. But to maintain that victory, more active, engaged citizenship work must be done. Prof. Piedra provided a model. I wonder what our students can do.

Here is Prof. Piedra's memo. I will write a lesson plan around this memo and share it here later.

TO: Board of Education, Urbana School District
FROM: Lissette M. Piedra, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, The School of Social Work
DATE: March 9, 2010
SUBJECT: A Case for Bilingual Family Liaison Services

"During times of fiscal austerity, cutting educational support services for Latino students and their families will prove in the long-run to be short-sighted and unwise. National, state, and local demographic trends signal the need for an increased focus on Latino youth and their families. Nationally, the unprecedented growth of the Latino youth population shows little sign of declining. Hispanic students make up 60% of the total growth in the nation’s public school enrollments over the past fifteen years1. There are now approximately 10 million Hispanic students—about one-in-five— public school students in the United States. By 2050, Latino youth are expected to make up 29% of the youth population2. Between 1996 and 2006, the proportion of Latino students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools increased from 14.0% to 20.1%, a significantly higher growth rate than any other ethnic or racial group.3

"According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, student enrollment in the Urbana School District follows a similar and even accentuated trend. In 2000-01, 120 Hispanic children were enrolled in the district. Five years later, the number had nearly doubled to 210 students, representing a 75% growth. During the 2007-08 school year, the number of Hispanic children grew to 267, reflecting a 122.50% change since 2000. During the same period, the total number of students shrank from 4615 to 3990. Hispanics children now make up nearly 7% of the student population and this trend shows no sign of decline.

"The size of the Latino youth population and the role they will play in future labor markets warrants a larger public investment in their well-being4. Indeed, evidence suggests cause for concern. According to the 2000 Census, the Latino population in Champaign County is relatively young; less than half are 25 years or over (38%). As a group, they have low levels of education; less than a third (32%) has a high school education or more and an even smaller percentage (16%) has a Bachelor degree or more. In addition, about a third of the population is foreign-born (33 %) and over 60% report speaking a language other than English at home.

"Latino youth are overrepresented among the poor. Low levels of education, recency of migration, and limited English proficiency contribute to low-wage labor participation. While labor participation among the Latino population is comparable to the general population, 54% and 55% respectively, there is significant discrepancy in earnings. Median household income for Latinos is $12,653 less than for the total population and families fare even worse—median family income is $21,737 less than for the total population. Not surprisingly, the percentage of individuals living below the poverty level is significantly higher among Latinos than for the total population (23.5% vs. 14.7%)5.

"Given the corrosiveness of poverty, Latino youth are at higher risk for poor developmental and health outcomes than their white peers.6 Moreover, for low-income immigrant Latino families increased length of residency in the United States coincides with deterioration in the health and school achievement of their children7. While overall school dropout rates have fallen over the past 30 years, the rates for Hispanic youth remain substantially higher than for any other ethnic group. According to the Illinois State Report Card (2008), 76% of Latino student who enter high school graduate compared to 93% of their white counterparts. In other words, one in four Latino students fails to graduate from high school in Illinois8. In addition to academic attrition, there are worrisome increases in adolescent parenthood, gang involvement, and suicidal behavior among Latino youth9.

"Despite all these vulnerabilities, Latino families report placing a high value on education. With appropriate supports, Latino children can succeed. However, language barriers pose serious obstacles for parents when accessing institutional supports10. In many ways, the presence of a bilingual Family Liaison conveys the message that the educational institution wants to keep vulnerable families connected to the school system. Moreover, the ability of the Urbana School district to provide support services in Spanish represents an institutional achievement that will be undermined by cutting the position. Indeed, in a recent study of Champaign service providers, researchers found that a chief compliant among bilingual providers was the lack of institutional planning around bilingual services when there is a reduction of bilingual staff.11

"During this fiscal crisis, it is important to keep sight of long-term demographic trends and to consider the difficulty in replacing bilingual services in a community with a serious shortage of bilingual staff. The Urbana school district urgently needs to have a bilingual Family Liaison and will need one even more in the future. An investment in the family liaison position today, represents an investment in the district’s ability to respond to rapid changing demographics and ultimately, to contribute to the development of our future labor force.

"1 Pew Hispanic Center (2008). One-in-five and growing fast: A profile of Hispanic public school students. Retrieved December 16, 2009 from
2 US Census Bureau. (2000). Population Estimates and Projections
3 National Center for Education Statistics. (2008). Digest of Education Statistics, 2006, Table 41.Washington, DC: US Department of Education.
4 See Morales, R., & Bonilla, F. (1993). Latinos in a changing U.S. economy: Comparative perspectives on growing inequality (Vol. 7) and see Sullivan, T. A. (2006). Demography, the demand for social services, and the potential for civic conflict. In D. W. Engstrom & L. M. Piedra (Eds.), Our Diverse Society: Race and Ethnicity -- Implications for 21st Century American Society (pp. 9-18).
5 Click here for reference.
6 Bloomberg, L., Ganey, A., Alba, V., Quintero, G., & Alcantara, L. A. (2003). Chicago-Latino Youth Leadership Institute: An asset-based program for youth. American Journal of Health Behavior, 27(1), S45-S54.
7 See Hernandez, D. J., & Charney, E. (Eds.). (1998). From generation to generation: The health and well-being of children in immigrant families (pp. 107–109). Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Also, see Shields, M. K., & Behrman, R. E. (2004). Children of immigrant families: Analysis and recommendations. Future of Children, 14(2), 4–16. Retrieved May 30, 2008, from
8 Illinois state reports card. (2008). 2008 Illinois state reports card. Retrieved December 16, 2009 from : click here for reference.
9 Pew Hispanic Center (2009). Latino youths optimistic but beset by problems. Retrieved December 16, 2009, from
10 For additional information see: Engstrom, D. W., & Min, J. W. (2004). Perspectives of bilingual social workers: "You just have to do a lot more for them". Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 13(1), 59-82. Engstrom, D. W., Piedra, L. M., & Min, J. W. (2009). Bilingual social workers: Language and service complexities. Administration in Social Work. Piedra, L. M. (2006). Revisiting the language question. In D. W. Engstrom & L. M. Piedra (Eds.), Our Diverse Society: Race and Ethnicity -- Implications for 21st Century American Society (pp. 67- 87). Piedra, L. M. (2010). Latinos & Spanish: The awkwardness of language in social work practice. In R. Furman & N. Negi (Eds.), Social work practice with Latinos (pp. 262-281). Schyve, P. M. (2007). Language differences as a barrier to quality and safety in health care: The joint commission perspective. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(Suppl 2), 360-361.
11 Piedra (2010). Puentes y Estrellas del Mar Study. Sponsored by the Community Informatics Initiative at The graduate School of Library and information Studies.

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