Children immigrating to Texas from Mexico face many obstacles when entering the Texas public school system, but a new university program is working to close the gaps and help more students succeed.
The Language Learners at The University of Texas at Austin Center for Hispanic Achievement (LUCHA) is designed to help Spanish-speaking students transition into English-language public schools. These students often face academic difficulty not only because of a language barrier but because most schools don't have the resources to determine appropriate grade placement, diagnose content-area mastery, or train personnel to address the challenges faced by immigrant students.
"The dropout rate for this demographic is very high," said Dr. Felipe Alanis, associate dean for the university's K-16 Education Center. "These kids are very bright but they become discouraged because of the language barrier or when placed in the wrong grade level."
LUCHA assists in a variety of ways, from verifying comprehension of required subjects to providing accurate transcript credit transfers. The program was developed by the K-16 Education Center, a component of the Division of Continuing and Innovative Education at the university.
The Donna Independent School District (DISD) in Donna, Texas on May 20 honored about 50 immigrant students for overcoming great social and economic obstacles to earn their high school diplomas. Their success was due in part to the help of LUCHA, which started a pilot program in DISD in August 2006.
"This program is a life-line. Finally, these students have been given equity in attaining their education," said Ofelia Gaona, executive director of bilingual education for DISD. "I feel really good as a professional and as an educator that these kids are being given a chance and being allowed to matter."
A pilot program was also started in Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District and the success of the program in both districts in two years can be seen in the more than 4,000 services that have been administered and the improvement in students' self-esteem.
Among the students brimming with hope for a brighter future in Donna is LUCHA participant, Sergio Barrientos, who has joined the U.S. Navy and who will use a substantial scholarship to complete his college education while in the service.
"I would not have been able to graduate without LUCHA services," Barrientos said.
Judging by the statistics concerning dropout rates for English language learners in Texas, Barrientos and his cohort are beating the odds. LUCHA is now being implemented in Houston, Dallas, Austin, south Texas and El Paso the five regions with the largest English language learner populations in the state.
"I am encouraged by the success of the program, and I look forward to assisting many more English language learners to successfully transition into and graduate from Texas high schools," said Alanis. "It is not often that one is fortunate enough to see high school students' lives being so directly and profoundly affected by an initiative of a nationally renowned research university."