Things were looking up for Latino students at Santa Ana College, where they make up more than 40 percent of the student body. In 2009, they closed the achievement gap in students at the college receiving associates degrees and transferring to four-year universities.
But budget cuts throughout the state's higher education system now are making it harder for students to get the courses they need and receive support services, said Sara Lundquist, vice president of student affairs at Santa Ana College.
"We think that gap could open up again," said Lundquist, who recently was named to President Obama's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
Concern that budget cuts could erode gains for Latino students came up several times Friday when the college hosted the Closing the Latino Achievement Gap Orange County 2011 Summit. About 300 people attended the conference, sponsored by the college and the Santa Ana Unified School District.
Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, acknowledged the severity of states' budget crises when he spoke during the summit. He called on schools to join in partnerships with businesses, non-profits and public agencies.
Latinos make up nearly half of the K-12 students in Orange County public schools and more than half of public school students statewide. Many of them live in poverty, are learning English as a second language and have immigrant parents with less than a high school education.
School-based factors also contribute to the achievement gap. In many cases, Latino students attend schools where teachers have poor attendance records, Sepulveda said. That problem was echoed by a student who spoke during a panel discussion.
Aura Carrillo, a sophomore at UC Irvine, said she was enrolled in AP and honors classes during high school, but friends in regular classes saw a string of substitute teachers who showed up with no lesson plans.
"It was always busy work," Carrillo said. "There's no way someone can learn in a class like that."
Still, around the country, Latino students narrowed the achievement gap with white students during the last decade, according to a report from the Center on Education Policy.
Participants at the summit also discussed how to help children learning English as a second language. Most were born in the United States but often wind up labeled English learners for years.
UCLA education professor Patricia Gandara argued for a shift to bilingual instruction, saying it is more likely to help students not just score proficient on tests but to attain literacy in English.
Prop. 227 required public schools in California to instruct students "overwhelmingly in English." Schools still offer bilingual classes through waivers, but the number of students receiving bilingual instruction plummeted after the measure's passage in 1998.
Yet a growing number of English learners now participate in dual-language immersion
programs, where the goal is fluency in two languages. The programs, which now number more than 200 in California, also offer native English speakers the chance to learn another language.