The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many Latino students lag academically in prosperous Maryland County

Hundreds of students and supporters march to raise awareness of the achievement gap in Montgomery County in 2014.
Hundreds of students and supporters march to raise awareness of the achievement gap in Montgomery County in 2014. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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A troubling number of Latino students in one of the nation’s most prosperous counties are unprepared for kindergarten, lag in reading, drop out of high school and falter as they head to college, according to a report released Thursday.

The study, from researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, underscores the struggle many Latino students face in Montgomery County, Md., despite being the largest ethnic or racial group in the high-performing suburban school system.

“They start out behind and they face really significant challenges in trying to close that gap,” said Amy B. Lewin, the study’s lead author. “They need better support.”

Dropout rates for Latino youths have edged up since 2014 in Montgomery, rising from 11.1 percent to 13.8 percent, and graduation rates have slipped slightly, from 80 percent to 78.5 percent. Achievement gaps remain wide, the report notes, and many youths face economic hardship, family trauma and ­immigration-related separations from their parents.

“Those numbers tell us the promise of Latino youth is at stake,” said Diego Uriburu, executive director of Identity Inc., a nonprofit agency that works with Latino youths in the county and that requested the study. “A generation could slip away — and a few already have. If we continue to do the same things we’ve done for 20 years, the potential of these young people will be lost.”

The report said many Latino students start out motivated and hopeful but lose confidence about the future as they age and face major challenges without enough support.

There is a “breach in the compact between a community and its youth to help them achieve their highest potential,” study authors Lewin and C. Andrew Conway wrote.

A once nearly all-white school district has a new largest group: Hispanic students

Montgomery has more than double the state’s percentage of elementary-age students with limited English proficiency — nearly 24 percent in 2017, compared with Maryland’s 11.6 percent, according to the report. When parents are less fluent in English, they are less able to help with homework or communicate easily with teachers, it noted.

Differences in student achievement were stark. About 24 percent of the county’s Latino children were ready for kindergarten in 2017, compared with 67 percent of their white peers. State reading test scores for third-graders revealed a nearly identical gap.

The report said that while the dropout rate has been improving nationally, that has not held true for Latino students in Montgomery County, and it highlighted large gaps: The rate for Latino students was more than twice the rate for black students in 2017, and more than quadruple the rate for white students.

The report’s authors also explored social and emotional trends, including expectations for the future, conflict management and depression symptoms.

“When children experience multiple and chronic stressors, it has really significant implications for both behavior and academic achievement,” said Lewin.

School system officials said they read the report and hoped Latino student outcomes would improve in coming years, amid a string of recent efforts to provide greater support. At the same time, “we know we have work to do,” said schools spokesman Derek Turner.

The report’s findings were unsurprising to some in the community.

“The need is there,” said Maria Portela, whose son graduated from county schools and who continues to work with Latino parents in Silver Spring to help them understand the school system and better support their children academically.

The problem starts in the earliest years, she said, when many families can’t afford quality child care and may not grasp its importance. But it affects students of all ages.

Parents whose children are in high school may not understand attendance issues or opportunities for special programs.

“The proportion of need is really significant, but the investment and the support provided is not equally comparable,” Portela said. “We need to do more.”

The report also looked beyond K-12 schools. It said that while many Latino youth express college aspirations, only 10 percent of Latinos who attend Montgomery College — a common destination — earn an associate degree within three years.

Many Latino students at Montgomery College are set back by the need to take remedial courses that help fill in learning gaps but give no college credit: About 87 percent of Latino students require remedial math in their first year, and 50 percent require remedial English, the analysis found.

The findings emerge from a county of increasing diversity. From 2000 to 2017, the Latino population surged in Montgomery County, rising 90 percent.

While some still think of the school system as largely white, Montgomery is 32 percent Latino, 21 percent black and 14 percent Asian. White students are a minority, at 28 percent.

Montgomery is one of America’s wealthiest counties, with a median household income of $103,235, the nation’s 17th highest, according to census figures. Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia rank even higher, as does Maryland’s Howard County.

But Latinos as a group, the report said, have the lowest median household income in the county, with about six in 10 Latinos working in low-wage jobs that don’t offer health insurance.

The report — examining one of the nation’s largest school systems and the biggest in the state — comes amid signs of broader distress. Nearly half of Latinos nationally said in a Pew Research Center survey that the situation has worsened for people of their ethnicity in the past year, a time when immigration has been a flash point amid the Trump presidency.

Pew survey: It’s getting harder to be Latino in America

There was also a marked decline in optimism about the next generation’s financial well-being compared with 2015, said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of global migration and demography research at Pew.

Lopez said the Montgomery report reflects some patterns that can be seen elsewhere in the United States. One difference in Montgomery is that many Latino families have origins in Central America, while nationally a majority have roots in Mexico.

The report — which relied on state and county data, along with survey results and other research studies — marked the most recent effort by the Latino community in Montgomery County to focus attention on the needs of children.

A 2014 report linked high dropout rates and a lack of deep engagement in school among Latino students to low expectations from teachers, a lack of parental involvement and not having regular computer access at home.

Report shows school disengagement among Latino youth

Uriburu said he fully supports strategies the school system has backed since then — increasing dual-language programs, experimenting with an extended school year, more prekindergarten and expanding career and technical training.

But the pace of change is too slow, he said.

As poverty rises, one Maryland school system tries a longer school year

Uriburu called for greater urgency from the school system and the broader community, along with increased involvement from Latino parents.

“Systems tend to operate as if they have all the time in the world,” he said. “Every year that passes, when things are not done, we lose thousands and thousands of young people.”

School system officials expressed concern for the success of Latino students, citing efforts to expand summer programs, create extended-year schools, increase two-way language immersion initiatives and add prekindergarten seats.

They said they have worked to involve more high school students of color in the most rigorous courses and strengthen the system’s efforts toward cross-cultural understanding.

The increase in dropouts partly reflects a rising number of students who arrive in Montgomery as teenagers and do not speak English, officials said. Since 2014, the number has jumped from 104 to 489.

A career program that offers the chance for industry certifications has been expanded for students who arrive as older English learners with limited formal education, they said.

“It’s a top priority,” said Turner, the school system spokesman. “We’re trying to be ahead of the curve with the demographic changes in our diverse school system.”