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Are New Policies at Cleveland's Most Diverse High School Helping Hispanic Students or Leaving them Further Behind? 

The struggle at school

Page 3 of 3

Within Lincoln West High School, near the cafeteria where Catalina's cousin was beat up, the bilingual resource room buzzes with busy students. It's almost the end of the school year, and the feverish excitement -- the magnetic pull of summer -- is clear. But there's still work to do. Miguel Nieves, a Spanish-speaking paraprofessional tutor, holds court as students of all ethnic stripes dash in and out of the room, clocking time on the computers and working through translations at one of the many tables.

"The medium of instruction is English," he says of Lincoln West's curriculum. "That's the nature of our programming as an ESL school. We're bilingual by nature in terms of we speak two languages. But the instructions are in English." (Nearby Buhrer Elementary is CMSD's literal bilingual school.)

Nieves helps translate materials — say, a biology lesson — out of English and into one of the school's 52 spoken languages. On most days, that means a lot of Spanish.

"The students who don't speak any English I bring here and I try to translate everything into Spanish, but at the same time I make sure that they know the meaning in English," he says. "They need to know English in America. They need to learn English. I combine them. That's my method to teach the students."

It's the same intersection that Ramos-Torres ran into again and again as the site coordinator here, and the same debate that Valentin considered as his frustrations with the process mounted: At what point does the bilingual student check their native tongue at the door?

It's a longstanding debate that's played out in cities and states around the U.S. (California, Arizona and Massachusetts, for instance, have passed controversial "English-only" public school laws.)

Nieves walks through the granular difficulties of high school lesson plans with students from around the world. He says he's become prouder of how his students do in class with each passing day. He sees successes, and he sees failures, but he says that an education rooted in English instills hope.

The teacher we spoke with earlier, one who wished to remain anonymous, says that there will always be good teachers and bad teachers, much like the student body. She says that it takes a certain kind of professional to engage students who aren't yet well versed in English -- regardless of whether the ultimate goal is to educate or to graduate. While poverty, standardized testing, access to resources and individual will are important factors in Hispanic students' education, this teacher contends that too many of her colleagues either don't give a hoot about the true grit of the profession or they're too overtasked to care about the student's real experience.

She laments another longstanding debate in America: How should teachers be doing their jobs?

Catalina says anecdotally that she has teachers who expect her more English-fluent friends to help impart the day's lessons -- fellow students who themselves are buried in work each day. In a Pavlovian sense, she's familiar with how her own language barrier and her sometimes-botched attempts to communicate will only land her in trouble.

"Sometimes the teachers hear wrong, and they'll kick us out," Catalina says, referring to her Spanish. "They will write us up and kick us out." Even when it's not a bloody fight in the cafeteria, Catalina knows that, sooner or later, she'll be sent packing.

Briefly, an excerpt from Hispanic Alliance Inc.'s 45-page Hispanic Education Case Statement, published in 2008, well before the Cleveland Plan took hold: "Poor Latino families are often labeled as uncaring about education. Their children are stigmatized as quitters or intellectually inferior when they don't achieve in school. The fact is parents cannot give their children what they do not have, namely the tools (financial or knowledge of the education system) that will help their children achieve in school. They can't provide an extensive vocabulary, reading habits and discussions at the dinner table to add value to what they are learning in school.

"The legacy that poor Hispanic parents pass on to their children can best be described as deficits in their educational journey. Adding salt to the wound, teachers assume there is someone at home who will help Hispanic students with their homework. Think again, there may not be. Creating and rewarding 'study buddy' partnerships can help. Collaborating with community leaders and faith-based organizations to establish community homework centers is another viable strategy."

Between CMSD and the numerous community organizations seemingly working in concert, the goal remains to tackle those particular challenges.

Lincoln West is a nexus for the Hispanic youth of the near westside. But with the school's 49.8-percent graduation rate, rising yet as it were, attendance for many serves as a formality with no guarantee of success after enrollment. It's the old narrative, polished anew as the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Our Schools: Some students will pass with flying colors, some students will fail. The numbers can mean whatever they mean.

According to the most recent public reports, 76 percent of Lincoln West students report feeling "safe" at school. The administration has not stated what solutions are on the table for the remaining and unsettled 24 percent (or some 210 students). Ramos-Torres says that promoting a safe and helpful environment was packed into her job description. She says she tried.

"I saw a lot of injustices, a lot of things going on," Ramos-Torres says. "When there's a rule and a policy it wasn't being enforced across, it was being enforced only to a certain ethnic group."

The stories are strewn about the halls -- on one hand very much like any other high school in the country, and on another hand wrapped in Lincoln West's own unique makeup. Around each tale, though, alarmingly, is how afraid families seem when asked to share their experiences, to tell their stories. More than anything, the culture of fear is settling in as a defining feature of the city's school district.

It's nothing new for Catalina and her friends, though. Summer's here, and with warm weather comes the inevitability of minimum-wage work. At 15, 16, 17, that's fine. Years from now? Not so much.

Vasquez, opting to editorialize for a moment between translations, says, "She wants a future, she has a vision. We all do."

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