Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Idaho needs to close education gap Hispanic students face

Agricultural labor demand has, for many years, spurred immigration and ongoing demographic change in Idaho rural communities and nationwide. The population of Hispanic Idahoans will increase from 12 percent to 20 percent by 2030.

All Idahoans have a stake in educational opportunity for Hispanic students. However, the Gem State is not meeting their needs. The gap between white and Hispanic students is worrisome: 41 percent of white students scored in the advanced range on the ISAT last year, compared to just 20 percent of Hispanic students. Furthermore, Hispanic student outcomes worsen as they progress through school. The percent of Hispanic students who are either proficient or advanced declines from 73 percent in primary school to 67 percent in middle school and 50 percent in high school.

Clearly, Hispanic students need more encouragement and support as they move through high school toward college or career. They need better information, mentoring, and guidance. I recently visited a rural high school in southern Idaho that has one counselor for 350 students. It is not surprising, then, that few of the Hispanic teenagers I talked with had met with their counselor. Those who had didn’t find the guidance useful. Although many had ambitious aspirations, their knowledge of post-secondary education and various career paths was minimal or misguided.

In a recent report supported by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, I identify several strategies that could help.

Initiatives like the federal Gear Up program, AVID, and Go On Idaho should be extended to more schools. They will help all students transition into post-secondary education, but are particularly important for Hispanic students, whose parents are seldom aware of the full spectrum of career options and have little or no experience with the grueling processes of college admissions and securing financial aid. Rural schools need to recruit more bilingual/bicultural staff to better engage parents.

Idaho’s Migrant Education Program has helped catalyze rural Hispanic parents’ engagement in their children’s education. However, federal guidelines limit eligibility to about 10 percent of rural Hispanic students. Idahoans must vigorously engage policymakers in Washington, D.C. to update the guidelines to include settled farmworker families.

Community service is an important part of secondary school learning. It can encourage youth to build skills in real world settings, inspire them to pursue post-secondary education, and give back to their communities. For example, the University of Idaho hosts a 4-H after-school program in Caldwell’s Farmway Village that relies on Hispanic student volunteers. There I talked with a 14-year-old from a farmworker family whose service experience has inspired her to become a pediatrician. Another program, Latinos in Action, engages teenagers as tutors for younger children and as translators for limited-English parents. This helps bridge the communication divide between schools and families, while building leadership skills and highlighting the value of being bilingual.

Finally, dual-credit high school programs are important. They allow students to explore and more smoothly transition into post-secondary education; they also give students experience with self-directed learning. But these programs are currently in place in just 10 of the 40 school districts that serve high concentrations of Hispanic students and implementation appears to be uneven. Idaho should make these learning opportunities more widely available to rural Hispanic students.

Solutions don’t need to be dollar-intensive. What’s needed is the courage and hard work to find innovative ways to more meaningfully engage parents, community members, and local businesses in students’ learning. Idahoans have an important opportunity — and responsibility — to increase rural Hispanic students’ career and college awareness.

Communities will reap rich rewards: a workforce better prepared for inevitable technological change — benefiting agriculture as well as other industries — and a new generation of potential civic leaders.