The Plight of Invisibility

A Community-Based Approach to Understanding the Educational Experiences of Urban Latina/os

by Donna Marie Harris (Author) Judy Marquez Kiyama (Author)
Textbook XIV, 201 Pages

Table Of Content




A recent report indicates that while 80% of high schoolers earn a diploma in the United States, African American and Latina/o learners still account for more than half of high school pushouts in the United States. Thus, although African American and Latina/o students make up only 38% of all high school students in the United States, 54% of these same students never complete high school (Swanson, 2014). I intentionally use the term pushout rather than the more common dropout to describe the school noncompletion process among youth of color. Referring to a youth as a high school dropout implies that this young person has decided on her own accord to leave school. Hence, suggesting that such a student has voluntarily chosen to cease her studies makes it easy to place the blame for this student’s greatly reduced life chances squarely on her own shoulders. In this foreword, I draw from my own work and research with Latina/o community-based organizations and the important roles they can play in the education of youth from this ethnic group (Antrop-González, 2011) in an effort to contextualize the content found within The Plight of Invisibility: A Community-Based Approach to Understanding the Educational Experiences of Urban Latina/os.

Much educational research describes the large extent to which the school-leaving process is much more complex in that most schools serve the primary function of reproducing social class and institutional racism. Thus, schools are actually systemically structured to fail students from racially/ethnically and linguistically marginalized groups. Consequently, progressive educational researchers assert that schools and their agents play active roles in pushing out students of color. More bluntly stated, most U.S. schools are merely institutions charged with continuing the dirty work of government-sanctioned colonialism, which rears its ugly head through various forms. ← vii | viii →

Educational researchers (e.g., Darder, 2012; Nieto, 2000; Solís-Jordán, 1994; Spring, 2012; Valenzuela, 1999) have richly documented the ways in which the curricular ideologies and practices of many schools work to exalt White, middle-class ways of knowing the world while stripping students of color of their primary languages, cultures, and epistemologies. Hence, these schools inflict great psychological trauma on young people and produce what we could call home identity amnesia, which induces the forgetting of one’s linguistic and cultural ways of interacting with one’s home and one’s home community. Nonetheless, while acknowledging the ways in which schools carry on these colonial projects, some communities of color have reacted to these colonial campaigns by conceptualizing and implementing decolonizing community-based institutions, including schools. The Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS), situated in the Puerto Rican community of Chicago, is one such example.

PACHS was founded in 1972 as a result of Puerto Rican students’ experiences with racism, whitewashed curricular practices, and low academic expectations that characterized Chicago’s comprehensive high schools. In my own experiences as a Puerto Rican youth attending urban public schools in the South, I all too well remember being told by a high school guidance counselor that my destiny was the military. I was tracked in boring, low-level courses where I was held to low academic expectations. I also was never encouraged to examine my identity as an urban Puerto Rican, born and raised in the Diaspora. Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States since 1898. Hence, I use the term Diaspora to refer to the Puerto Rican population residing in the United States. As an urban Puerto Rican who did not have a deep understanding of his identity, I was not engaged to my fullest academic potential. Consequently, I resisted schooling, earned low grades, and was denied admission to the 4-year state universities to which I applied. Like most Latina/os in the United States who pursue a postsecondary education, I enrolled in a local community college, where I experienced small class sizes, reduced tuition rates, and high expectations from my professors, who felt I had scholarly potential. These positive conditions resulted in my developing a sense of belonging and raised my confidence. For the first time in my schooling, I felt I was capable of being smart and academically successful. Unfortunately, however, I had to wait until I was in college to possess a high self-concept. In fact, it was not until I was a doctoral student in education that I discovered and was drawn to the work of PACHS and its role in educating Latina/o students, which led me to work with and conduct a study of this counterhegemonic learning space. ← viii | ix →

When I began my work with PACHS, I quickly learned it was part and parcel of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC). The PRCC is an umbrella community-based organization that houses the work of several important projects in the Puerto Rican community of Chicago. These projects include an HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment referral center (VIDA/SIDA), an after-school youth-led racism and homophobia-free safe space (Batey Urbano), a bakery, a senior apartment housing complex, a culturally relevant preschool (Family Learning Center), and PACHS, among other projects. These PRCC projects often coordinate their programming with each other in order to insure that community residents’ needs are met. Thus, as a PRCC agency, PACHS organizes its curriculum and structure in a community context.

When I interviewed PACHS students to make sense of their schooling experiences in this culturally relevant learning and teaching space, I discovered that students regarded this school as a sanctuary—what a powerful way to think of a school! I was amazed and deeply touched that Latina/o high school students would refer to their school in such a way, as many of their peers in the United States had often experienced schools as sites of psychological trauma. According to the students I spoke with, PACHS was a sanctuary for several reasons. First, teachers affirmed their students’ racial/ethnic and linguistic identities; being Latina/o and/or Spanish-speaking was not viewed as a deficit. On the contrary, courses such as African American and Latina/o studies and Spanish were standard offerings. Moreover, teachers used a variety of texts in order to encourage learners to compare and contrast the ways in which U.S. history was presented. Alternative histories and ways of knowing the world were normative practices at PACHS.

Second, the students I spoke with reported that teachers deeply cared for them. This care was manifested through the establishment of high academic expectations and meaningful student-teacher relationships. In other words, teachers knew their students well. Teachers knew their students’ families and understood the community contexts from which they came. In fact, most of the PACHS teachers lived in the Puerto Rican community where the school was situated, and often participated in after-school and weekend activities with their students. Thus, students viewed PACHS faculty as family. Additionally, students remarked that their teachers did not accept low quality work. Teachers pushed their students to do the best they could academically, encouraging them to be highly capable learners. Finally, the PACHS culture operated from an urgent sense of service to the community, which openly and passionately analyzed social justice issues. These issues included making sense of Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. colony, marching for the release of Puerto Rican political prisoners, and studying the concept of food deserts and acting ← ix | x → to eradicate them by constructing a greenhouse and growing fresh fruits and vegetables so that community residents could have access to these healthy foods on a frequent basis.

In the same spirit that imbues PACHS and the community-based organizations and Puerto Rican ethnic enclave in which they are situated, Harris and Kiyama have brought together scholars who powerfully describe the intersections between community-based organizations of color, schooling for Latina/o youth, and the roles they play within marginalized communities, using the community-based research framework (CBR). In outlining this research framework, they clearly describe the ways in which research is often done on communities rather than with communities. As a colonizing force, researchers have often used their methods to take data from their participants in order to publish books and articles. Hence, the communities they study in no way benefit from such scholarly endeavors; on the contrary, much of this research is focused on what these communities lack as opposed to the rich resources they already possess. In this book, however, the contributors honor and affirm the funds of knowledge and indigenous ways of knowing that communities bring to the research process.

As explained throughout this volume, CBR relies on the active participation of community-based organizations, schools, and community residents in the conceptualization and design of research projects. Thus, the participating community directly benefits from the research process and interrupts the ways in which traditional educational research is conducted. Describing the research partnership between researchers, school districts, and community-based organizations, implications for schooling and serving Puerto Rican children and youth are co-constructed in order to generate ideas revolving around increasing the life chances and structures of opportunity for marginalized communities and their residents.

In sum, it is imperative that teachers, teacher educators, and policy makers pay closer attention to the diverse ways in which schooling practices can be decolonized for marginalized children and youth. Communities certainly already know their children best, and they possess rich sources of knowledge that have the vast potential to enhance the work of schools located within their neighborhoods in the spirit of culturally relevant partnerships. It is only when schools regard communities of color as fully capable partners in the educative process that students will feel a deep sense of belonging and respect for who they are on their way to becoming. Thus, Harris, Kiyama, and the contributors to this book offer us powerful insights into how such a decolonizing community-school partnership makes significant differences in the lives of their learners and the spaces in which they reside. ← x | xi →



This book would not have been possible without the efforts of Hilda Rosario Escher, the president and CEO of the Ibero-American Action League (Ibero), and the Ibero staff who are tireless advocates for Latina/o students and families. Since its inception, Ibero has fought to promote the visibility of Latina/o community needs in Rochester, New York. Their advocacy efforts were the catalyst for the research found in this book which documents both the challenges and resources Latina/o secondary school students and their families used to negotiate in the Rochester City School District (RCSD). We are grateful for the members of the Latina/o Education Task Force (Task Force) who were collaborators in this research project. The Task Force has had several chairpersons who provided leadership during the various phases of the group. Margaret Sanchez served as the initial Task Force chairperson, from 2008 through 2010, during the research design, data collection, analysis, and findings dissemination. In 2011, Julio Saenz and Yazmin Torres were co-chairpersons during the development of short- and long-term action plans based on report recommendations. And Anthony Ploncynzski has been the chairperson since 2012 and facilitates ongoing advocacy efforts. These activities have been further supported by school board members José Cruz and Melisza Campos and Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas.

We thank the Latina/o students and families in the Rochester community who participated in our study and openly shared their experiences. Your stories demonstrate the unique challenges confronted by Latina/o students. At the same time, your experiences demonstrate the funds of knowledge that exist and are used in the community despite the structural barriers confronted in schools and neighborhoods. We use your voices to show the realities that are often ignored by school practices and policies. In the end, we anticipate that the stories highlighted in this text will continue to foster needed change ← xi | xii → in order to promote greater education engagement, high school completion, and college matriculation for Latina/o students in Rochester and other urban school communities.

Our research was supported by a number of people including Dr. Nancy Ares, our colleague at the University of Rochester, who invited us to be participants on the Task Force and serve as co-research investigators on this project. Access to students and families was facilitated by Ibero staff including school-based mentors through the Puerto Rican Youth Development program; Upward Bound program staff at the University of Rochester; school-based coordinators at several Rochester City high schools; and local school administrators. In addition, access to student data was facilitated by Jean Claude-Brizard, former superintendent of the RCSD, Dr. Jeanette Silvers, former chief of accountability at the RCSD, and district staff including Andrew MacGowan and Lorna Washington. This research was supported by funds from the Rochester Area Community Foundation, the Warner Graduate School of Education at the University of Rochester, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and the University of Denver Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE).

The opportunity to conduct this study was enhanced by our research team from the University of Rochester, including Dwayne Campbell, Dr. Amalia Dache-Gerbino, Dr. Emily Martinez-Vogt, Monica Miranda, Thomas Noel Jr., Dr. Sandra Quiñones, Vicki T. Sapp, and Anibal Soler Jr., who were doctoral students from 2008 to 2011. The data collection, analysis, and dissemination efforts were facilitated by your diligence and commitment to addressing the needs of Latina/o students. The research undertaken was personal to our team given our various experiences as students, educators, people of color, and/or residents of Rochester, with many of our team members sharing similar experiences with our student and family participants. Given our concerns, this community-based research project allowed us to apply acquired knowledge to address the immediate and persistent educational challenges confronted by Latina/o students in Rochester, New York. It was a priority that our research offer insights in order to promote timely solutions for change.

We express our gratitude to Peter Lang Publishing for providing us the platform to share our research. We extend special appreciation to Dr. Yolanda Medina, series editor for Critical Studies of Latinos/as in the Americas, and Chris Myers, managing director at Peter Lang, for selecting our manuscript for publication and supporting us during the publication process. In addition, we give thanks to Tokeya Graham who assisted with book chapter copyediting. ← xii | xiii →

Donna Marie Harris would like to thank Dr. Judy Marquez Kiyama, who has been a great collaborator and colleague throughout this research project. Our partnership during this endeavor has allowed us to draw on our strengths as researchers and honor our commitments as scholars focusing on racial justice in education. I would also like to thank my parents, Joyce Harris and Rodger J. Harris Sr., who have provided constant encouragement and support throughout my academic career and during the development of this book.

Judy Marquez Kiyama would like to thank Dr. Donna Marie Harris for her critical insight and leadership on this project. I treasure our collaboration and friendship and hope our work demonstrates to others the strength, resources, and activism found in communities of color. My husband Arturo and daughter Liliana are continuous sources of strength and support. For my Liliana, who as a baby and toddler accompanied me to Education Task Force meetings, I hope you always recognize the importance of working for a cause greater than yourself. ← xiii | xiv →


1. Study Background and Book Overview


The issue of Latina/o academic underachievement, high school dropouts, and “pushouts” has been a persistent problem and widely documented (see Gándara & Contreras, 2009). Latina/o students transition from middle to high school at rates of only 48% to 55%, and half of the remaining students leave prior to graduation, leading to a graduation rate of approximately 50% (Fry, 2003; Oliva & Nora, 2004). With public schools serving increasing numbers of Latina/o students, especially in urban schools (Cammarota, 2006; Fry & Gonzáles, 2008), it is necessary to understand the factors that promote success as well as the structural barriers and systems that limit and derail schooling for this student population. Cammarota (2006) argues that “the simultaneous increase of Latina/o students alongside their persistently high dropout rate represents a significant paradox in urban schools” (p. 2).

National, State, and Local Trends Regarding Latina/o Persistence

National trends demonstrate that Latina/o students are being underserved in public schools, and this situation has resulted in the lowest educational attainment of all racial/ethnic groups, with approximately 43% of Latina/os achieving less than a high school diploma (Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004). National dropout estimates show that although dropout rates have decreased since the late 1980s, the rates of dropouts for Latina/os are higher than national averages (Aud, Hussar, Kena, Bianco, Frohlich, Kemp, & Tahan, 2011). For example, while 8.7% of young people from 16 to 24 in 2007 dropped out of high school without obtaining a GED, dropout rates for Latina/os in this age group was 21.4% (Snyder, Dillow, & Hoffman, 2009). ← 1 | 2 → In addition, dropout out rates vary based on whether the Latina/o student was born inside or outside of the U.S. Among Latina/os aged 16 to 26 years in 2011, the dropout rate for Latina/os born in the U.S. was 9% and 28% for those born outside the U.S. (Kena, Aud, Johnson, Wang, Zhang, Rathbun, Wilkinson-Flicker, & Kristapovich, 2014). Latina/o students also have lower college enrollment rates when compared to all students and their White peers (Liu, 2011). According to Perez Huber, Huider, Malagon, Sanchez, & Solorzano (2006), out of every 100 Latina/o students who enter elementary school in the United States, 54 are projected to graduate from high school; of these students, only 11 are projected to graduate from college, with only 4 projected to complete graduate or professional school, and less than 1 will earn a doctoral degree (p. 2).

Educational disparities also exist among Latina/o subgroups, with 49% of Mexicans and 33% of Puerto Ricans obtaining less than a high school diploma, and Cubans attaining the highest high school completion rate, at almost 39% (Chapa & De La Rosa, 2004). Puerto Ricans have experienced high rates of dropouts, particularly in large urban cities including Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City for almost 40 years (Nieto, 1998, 2003). Exiting high school leaves limited educational and occupational opportunities, as once Latina/o students drop out of high school, only 10% obtain their GED, and the unemployment rates for those with a GED are greater than for high school graduates (Fry, 2010). Without adequate academic preparation, Latina/o students confront limited postsecondary education and career opportunities, leaving them vulnerable and putting them at risk for living in areas of concentrated poverty with limited economic and social resources (Dache-Gerbino, 2014; Belfield, 2010). Therefore, finding ways to keep Latina/o students in school provides the best chance for long-term success.

The problems Latina/o students confront are compounded in urban schools districts around the country, as these educational contexts are highly segregated by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status (Cammarota, 2006; Gándara, 2010a). Seventy-eight percent of Latina/o students attend schools with a population that is over 50% students of color (Gándara, 2010b, p. 60). Balfanz and Letgers (2004) demonstrate that schools where Latina/o and African American students are in the majority are least likely to have high levels of promotion power. That is, these schools have low percentages of students who successfully transition through grades 9 to 12 and graduate in 4 years. As a result, schools with low promotion power are most likely to have low graduation and high dropout rates. In fact, 39% of Latina/o students in the early 2000s attended high schools in the nation where completion was not a common occurrence. Balfanz and Letger’s analysis of the Common ← 2 | 3 → Core of Data (CCD) shows that schools with low promotion power are found primarily in 15 states, including two in the Northeast: New York and Pennsylvania. Rochester, New York City, and Yonkers were among 20 cities in the Northeast with low promotion power.

Rochester, New York, provides an important context to understand the circumstances of Latina/o students because this community confronts major challenges including the highest poverty rate in western New York, at 31%—a rate that is among the highest among metropolitan areas in the nation (Doherty, 2013). Like many postindustrial cities, Rochester has confronted the loss of manufacturing jobs in the region, and those with only a high school diploma have limited access to middle-income jobs (ACT Rochester, 2014a). In addition to economic shifts in the region, New York State estimates that between 2008 and 2019 the number of high school graduates is expected to decrease, with the projections for Latina/o graduates expected to increase by 3%. Outside of New York City the number of Latina/o high school graduates is expected to increase by 53%. The projected number of high school graduates across all groups in Monroe County, New York (that includes Rochester) is expected to decrease between 2008 and 2019 by 22% (New York State Education Department, n.d.b). However, if Monroe County follows statewide trends, then we would also expect to see a growth in the numbers of Latina/o students in the high school pipeline.

During 2009–2010, the Rochester City School District (RCSD) student population included over 30,000 students. The demographic composition of the K–12 schools was 22% Latina/o, 64% African American, 10% White, and 3% Asian/Pacific Islander. Although a small number of Native Americans attended schools in the district, their representation was equivalent to 0%. In addition, English Language Learners, the majority of which were Latina/o, made up 10% of the students during 2009–2010 (New York State Education Department, 2011e). During 2009–2010, the school district had 18 secondary schools that housed grades 7–12, and 39 elementary schools. These high schools reflect different configurations, including two selective magnet schools, a number of comprehensive high schools, and several high school sites where a number of small schools share a campus. Also, Sotomayor High is the only secondary school in the RCSD where Latina/o students were in the majority, and represented 61% of the schools’ population in 2009–2010 (New York State Education Department, 2011f).

The Rochester City schools have confronted chronic struggles regarding student persistence, graduation, and academic performance at the secondary level. Dropout data compiled from the New York State Education Department (see Table 1.1) for the RCSD’s high school classes of 2006 through ← 3 | 4 → 2009 show that the percentage of Latina/o students that leave school before obtaining a diploma is higher than the general district rates. For the class of 2006, the district’s dropout rate1 was 36% generally, but 48% for Latina/os. Although the dropout rates for Latina/o students improved between 2006 and 2009, a gap still remained when compared to district outcomes (Kiyama & Harris, 2010; New York State Education Department, 2010b). By 2009 the Latina/o dropout rate had dropped to 36%, but it was still higher than the district average of 32%. In addition, the dropout rate among English Language Learners was higher than those reported for all RCSD secondary students and among Latina/os. English Language Learners2 in the class of 2009 had a dropout rate of 41%, which was 9 percentage points higher than the district dropout estimate and 5 points higher than Latina/o students (New York State Education Department, 2010a).

Table 1.1. Rochester City School District 4-Year Dropout Trends.


Note. Data compiled from New York State Education Department graduation rate data archive (http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/cohort/archive-grad.html)

The graduation rates3 for the RCSD between 2008 and 2012 similarly show that there were gaps between district and Latina/o student outcomes. Table 1.2 shows that the RCSD graduation rates ranged from a low of 46% to a high of 52% from 2008 to 2012 ( New York State Education Department, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2011h, 2011i, 2012, 2013). At the same time, Latina/o graduation rates were consistently below the rates for all students in the district. Between 2008 and 2012 the Latina/o graduation rate fluctuated between 47% (in 2008, 2010, 2011) and 42% (in 2009, 2012). For the class of 2008, the graduation rate for Latina/o students was 47%, compared to 52% for all students in the district 4 years after entering 9th grade. The graduation rate for Latina/o students in the class of 2012 decreased to 42%, 7 percentage points lower than the district rate at 49%. English Language Learners’ graduation outcomes were also much lower compared to district and Latina/o rates. The graduation rate for English Language Learners was 27% for the class of 2009, ← 4 | 5 → 33% for the class of 2010, 23% for the class of 2011, and 21% for the class of 2012 (New York State Education Department, 2010a, 2011i, 2012, 2013).

Table 1.2. Rochester City School District Graduation Rates.


Note. Data compiled from New York State Education Department graduation data archive (http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/cohort/archive-grad.html)

A significant number of the secondary schools in the RCSD have not met state performance benchmarks. During 2009–2010, 9 out of 18 high schools in Rochester were designated as persistently low achieving, given student performance outcomes in English Language Arts and mathematics assessments and/or graduation rates (New York State Education Department, 2011e). In addition, wide disparities in college readiness exist between RCSD graduation figures and benchmarks measured by an indicator determined from New York State Regents exam scores. Students who achieve a score of 75 or higher on the English Regents exam and 80 or higher on the mathematics exam are considered college ready. Among 2012 RCSD graduates, only 6% achieved the Regents exam college readiness benchmarks, compared to the state rate of 35% (ACT Rochester, 2014b).

Reform and Latina/o Students

There have been numerous efforts to address the inequalities among students in education through federal policy and reform efforts engaged by districts and schools since Brown v. the Board of Education. National educational commissions have produced reports such as A Nation at Risk, published in 1983, which provided recommendations to address the low levels of educational outcomes in U.S. schools, including increasing graduation requirements (Cross, 2004). The needs of Latina/o students have also been the subject of federal committees, such as the President’s Advisory Commission on the Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. Federal accountability policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have prompted states to ← 5 | 6 → implement educational standards and aligned assessments to increase student achievement in order to resolve the educational disparities experienced by Latina/o, African American, Native American, and Asian American students (Montero-Sieburth, 2005).

Urban school districts, such as Rochester, have engaged in numerous efforts to improve educational outcomes through adoption of school reform models such as America’s Choice in a number of elementary, middle, and high schools during the late 1990s through early 2000s (see May & Supovitz, 2006). Despite these efforts at the national, state, and local levels, concerns have been raised that the needs of Latina/o students have not been adequately addressed by past and current reform efforts (Montero-Sieburth, 2005). Since the challenges confronted by Latina/o students in U.S. public schools are not new, why have they not been addressed? Moran (1997) suggests that often in public policy debates, the needs of Latina/os are not fully understood given the diversity of the community. Often, pre-existing frameworks used to address the needs of other racial groups are presumed to be adequate to remedy the needs of Latina/os. However, Moran suggests that “If Latinos’ problems are analogous to those of other groups, traditional solutions would suffice. However, relying on traditional solutions overlooks the possibility that Latinos have distinct needs” (p. 1317).

Latina/o Educational Activism

Given that U.S. school systems and educational policies have not been able to fully address the needs of Latina/o children, the Latina/o community has had a tradition of organizing for educational advocacy to overcome inadequate schools and policy solutions. At times, educational policies have served to reproduce existing inequalities that are stratified by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and language (Montero-Sieburth, 2005; Reyes, 2006; San Miguel & Donato, 2010; Spring, 2012). San Miguel and Donato’s (2010) historical accounts of Latina/o education activism from the 1890s through the 1950s show community efforts to overcome unequal education by addressing student access, appropriate pedagogy, cultural and linguistic inclusion of curriculum and instruction, and school segregation. Organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) advocated for Latina/o school access in the Southwest, primarily for Mexican American students. From the 1960s forward, the Latina/o community has continued to address school segregation and unequal schools by mounting legal challenges regarding unequal school funding and bilingual education. Organized legal challenges have occurred at various levels, with Serrano v. Priest pursued ← 6 | 7 → in the California Supreme Court and Rodriguez v. San Antonio ISD argued in the U.S. Supreme Court (San Miguel & Donato, 2010; Spring, 2012). Especially during the 1970s, communities around the country pursued bilingual education to remedy the learning needs of English Language Learners. Aspira, an educational advocacy group in New York City, fought Aspira of New York, Inc. v. the Board of Education on behalf of Puerto Rican students who lacked language supports in schools in 1974. As result of this court case, the Aspira Consent decree was agreed upon and bilingual education was mandated for English Language Learners in New York City schools (Reyes, 2006). As the diversity of the Latina/o community continues to grow, there is the present need for educational activism to address both pre-existing and new issues that emerge among the population (Mercado & Reyes, 2010; Pedraza & Rivera, 2005).

As Escher and Ares describe in chapter 2, the Rochester Latina/o community, including the leadership of the Ibero-American Action League, a social service organization that provides resources for the Latina/o community, have been tireless advocates addressing the inequalities encountered by Latina/o students and their families in the city schools. Since the mid-1980s the Latina/o community has organized a number of educational task forces on Latina/o education. The Access for Hispanics to Opportunities Results in Achievement (AHORA) reports have been published by the RCSD Office of Hispanic Studies four times (in 1986, 1996, 1999, and 2006) to document Latina/o student school enrollment, test scores, course placement patterns, dropout rates, and graduation rates. Documentation about community relations included data about parent involvement, and examinations of Latina/o representation among school and district staff were provided. Based on data provided in each report, recommendations were offered to remedy the inequities that have existed over three decades (Rochester City School District, 1986, 1996, 1999, 2006).

The Latina/o Education Task Force in Rochester, New York

Despite these advocacy efforts in Rochester, the experiences of and outcomes for Latina/o students continue to be poor, and many of the key recommendations for change discussed in the AHORA reports have not been realized. The low graduation and high dropout rates experienced by Latina/os in Rochester from the mid- to late 2000s were a catalyst for a new educational task force convened by the Ibero-American Action League in 2008 to combat the invisibility of Latina/o students in the RCSD. Task force members included representatives from the Latina/o community who served in a ← 7 | 8 → number of roles locally, including leaders of local agencies; direct service providers; and RSCD school board members, district leaders, and school-based staff. The group also included faculty, students, and staff from the University of Rochester, non-Latina/o district staff, and local clergy. The work of the 2008 Latina/o Education Task Force was supported by a grant from the Rochester Area Community Foundation.

The tactic taken by the Latina/o Education Task Force to examine the issues related to Latina/o high school persistence was community-based and designed “to give voice to Latino/a perspectives on school reform and the knowledge base needed to sustain positive social change” (Mercado & Santamaría, 2005, p. 22). Although Latina/o Education Task Force members wanted a study to better understand the factors that contributed to students leaving Rochester high schools before completion, we also desired insights about how students succeeded. Our study in Rochester aligns with a research agenda advocated by the National Latino/a Education Research and Policy Project (NLERAP) because it allows for studies to center on addressing local needs and to draw on the cultural ways of knowing that exist among Latina/os (Pedraza & Rivera, 2005). As a collective of Latina/o scholars, NLERAP argues for community-based research because it allows for new alliances that are necessary to promote change in the Latina/o community (Mercado & Santamaría, 2005; Pedraza & Rivera, 2005). As a community-based endeavor, the research engaged by the Latina/o Education Task was a true collaboration between the researchers from the University of Rochester and other members of our group, as we discuss in further detail in chapter 3. Because our role during the project was to facilitate the research process, Latina/o Education Task Force members informed all aspects of the study design, from research question development to providing feedback on our analysis. Throughout the study, from 2008 to 2010, we were supported in our work by the rich social networks, political connections, and human resources within the Latina/o and greater Rochester community.

Unlike traditional academic research, community-based research projects are grounded in making sure that study results are applied in the local settings first. Reciprocity is assumed in these types of studies, and researchers are expected to contribute back to the local community (Mercado & Santamaría, 2005). The study findings have been widely disseminated through several outlets in Rochester to inform local policy and practice. We presented the first set of Latina/o Education Task Force study findings in the report School Experiences of Latina/o Students: A Community-Based Study of Resources, Challenges, and Successes (Kiyama & Harris, 2010) at the Ibero-American Action League annual luncheon attended by community stakeholders and ← 8 | 9 → congressional, state, county and city hall leadership, funding agencies, and RCSD administrative staff. Unlike prior AHORA reports (Rochester City School District, 1986, 1996, 1998, 2006), the 2010 report was made available through the Ibero agency website and our research study website at the University of Rochester. After our report was released, the research team and Task Force members were invited to present study findings locally to RCSD district and school staff, local social service agencies, and local university audiences. Study findings were featured in local media including newspapers, television, and radio. The research team has been able to present extended study results at national meetings of professional conferences including the American Education Research Association (AERA), the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), and the First Triennial Conference on Latina/o Education and Immigration. In addition, study results have been used to inform work related to Latina/o education summits convened by the RCSD and facilitated by the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University.

The purpose of this book is to continue the dissemination process of the study findings by providing a deeper analysis that privileges the voices of Latina/o students and families. We draw upon their voices to understand the challenges confronted and highlight resources located within and used by the Latina/o community to navigate among multiple school and community contexts that interfaced with their racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, and/or transnational identities. Consequently, we provide new lenses to understand the circumstances of Latina/o students in schools as they navigate in social systems that often do not validate them and are in opposition to their positive personal and academic development. This leaves schools fundamentally unresponsive regarding engaging their holistic needs. Without addressing these needs, Latina/o students will be unable to successfully advance in K–12 schools, limiting their access to postsecondary education and jobs with adequate wages and benefits. In view of these challenges, this text suggests where to target interventions and resources to address the needs of Latina/o students and their families, and it discusses existing community programs and resources that support Latina/o students. We are able to also incorporate the perspectives of Hilda Rosario Escher, the president and CEO of the Ibero-American Action League, who has been a tireless advocate for Latina/o youth and families, and Bolgen Vargas, Ed.D., the Rochester City School District superintendent, who has been involved in prior education task forces and has conducted research about Latina/o studies (Vargas, 2010).

We hope that our study can be used by community organizations and advocates, educational researchers, practitioners, students, and policymakers to ← 9 | 10 → reframe the deficit-based discourses about Latina/o students and their families to one that acknowledges the structural constraints confronted in schools as well as the assets possessed within the community that can be harnessed to promote access, engagement, persistence, high school completion, and higher education matriculation. We anticipate that this narrative of activism about Latina/os in Rochester, New York, will contribute to the development of relevant policy and practices for Latina/o students locally, regionally, and nationally.

All the contributors to this manuscript have played multiple roles in Rochester that reflect our investment in this study about Latina/o students and families and underscore our commitments to social justice and educational transformation. We have all served in many roles in the city, with experiences as students, parents, teachers, service providers, and/or researchers. Most of us have lived in the city for a length of time, and all contributors have worked in various institutions in the city.

In chapter 2 Ares and Rosario Escher provide a historical overview about the challenges Latina/o students have confronted in elementary and secondary schools in Rochester, New York, over three decades, and how concerns about these issues resulted in the creation of the Latina/o Education Task Force by the Ibero-American Action League in 2008. As a social service organization, the Ibero-American Action League has provided community supports targeted to the Latina/o community since 1968. The membership and goals of the Education Task Force are articulated, including an understanding about the origins of the research collaboration with faculty and graduate students at the University of Rochester.

Chapter 3 provides a review of the theoretical and methodological frameworks that guided this project. Specifically, Kiyama and Harris articulate the ways in which this study reflects a community-based research approach between university faculty and graduate students and the Ibero-American Action League, and they provide an overview of the opportunities and challenges that accompany this research approach. This chapter includes a detailed synopsis of the school community context and participant sample.

In chapter 4 Harris and Kiyama draw on student voices to understand how school policies and practices in local secondary schools posed significant barriers for Latina/o high school persistence. Although policies enacted regarding the allocation of bilingual resources among high schools, in-school suspensions, and the use of public transportation as the only means for high school students to commute to school were designed to facilitate educational access, responses show that they posed significant challenges for Latina/o students as they navigated the local high schools. ← 10 | 11 →

Quiñones in chapter 5 presents findings based on parents’ and guardians’ experiences of engagement with Rochester schools. Parents’ narratives and interpretations of their children’s educational experiences and interactions with the local schools are reviewed. The themes derived from the parent focus groups include maintaining high aspirations for their children despite frustration with the school district, concerns about school safety, and addressing negative stereotypes about Latina/o families and students. In their interactions with these schools they sought to maintain voice, visibility, and respect.

Harris and Kiyama in chapter 6 document the important role school and community-based programs have for sustaining the persistence of Latina/o high school students in the Rochester City School District. Consensus among student participants revealed that these programs provided a safe space where students were able to develop confianza (mutual trust) with caring adults. Safe spaces were also culturally and linguistically affirming; students could be themselves there. Adults associated with these programs served as institutional agents who helped students address personal and school barriers that allowed students to successfully negotiate within schools. Students indicated that without these community and school-based programs and the supports available through them, they would leave their respective high schools.

In chapter 7 Kiyama, Dache-Gerbino, and Sapp present findings from interviews with 16 Latinas exploring how different forms of violence (i.e., stereotypes, neighborhood, and physical) influence the postsecondary opportunities for Latinas, and illustrate how Latinas respond to these forms of violence as they transition out of high school and into college. The authors review how Latinas resist multiple forms of violence within their educational spaces, how Latinas activate agency to ensure college opportunity within these spaces, and ultimately, how college transition is structured for Latinas as they navigate educational settings affected by violence.

In chapter 8 Harris and Noel examine the availability and enrollment of Latina/o students in Advanced Placement courses in Rochester, New York. Using Advanced Placement records from the 2009–2010 Office of Civil Rights dataset, this chapter describes the availability of AP courses and disparities in college preparatory opportunities between and within Rochester, New York, high schools and neighboring suburban school districts. The findings from this analysis show that Latina/o students were underrepresented in AP courses across a number of subject areas in Rochester City School District and five neighboring suburban districts. ← 11 | 12 →

Kiyama and Harris in chapter 9 outline recommendations gathered from this research study, school and community presentations, and meetings with the Latina/o Education Task Force. The chapter offers recommendations and steps that schools at the K–12 and postsecondary level, community organizations, and families can take to collectively work together to create more equitable educational opportunities for Latina/o students in urban school districts.

In chapter 10 Bolgen Vargas, the current superintendent of the Rochester City School District, provides his insights about the challenges encountered by Latina/os locally. He draws from his dissertation research findings regarding the importance of gateway protective factors (e.g., access to social support systems) to the likelihood of high school graduation of Latina/o students in Rochester to inform a comprehensive action plan the RCSD has put in place to improve the experiences and outcomes of Latina/o students, with a focus on pre-K to 3rd grade strategies that are aimed to resolve high school pipeline challenges.

In chapter 11 Kiyama and Harris discuss the practice and policy implications at the K–12 and postsecondary levels that emerge from the earlier chapters. Thoughts are provided regarding K–12 practices and policies that are needed to help Latina/o students as they enter and move through schools, including the appropriate allocation of resources among schools and socio-emotional supports needed to promote student engagement that will support adequate academic preparation and successful matriculation into college.

In chapter 12 Harris and Kiyama provide conclusions that concentrate on student dropouts, persistence, and college access, with an overview of interventions and best practices that are focused on addressing the needs of Latina/o students. The authors include information about community-based and participatory youth projects throughout the United States aimed at improving Latina/o education as a resource for practitioners, parents, community advocates, and policymakers.


 1 Dropout rates are based on a 9th grade cohort. It is calculated based on the percentage of 9th graders who drop out 4 years after entering high school.

 2 Four-year dropout data regarding ELL was not available until 2009.

 3 Graduation rates are based on 9th grade cohorts; therefore, the rates reflect the percentage of 9th graders who graduate 4 years later and report in August of the graduation year. For example, the class of 2008 graduation rates are based on August 2008 data. ← 12 | 13 →


2. Estámos Aquí! A Historical Context for the Plight of Invisibility


Understanding the historical context in which the Latina/o1 community in Rochester, New York, has developed is crucial to situating the rest of the chapters in this book in the larger political, social, cultural, and economic milieu. We begin by charting some important events in the community over the past several decades. Following that, a synthesis of two reports (Rochester City School District, 1986, 1999) on the status of Latina/o students in the RCSD is provided. Current demographic information for Rochester’s Latina/o community is presented, followed by a brief summary of the Ibero- American Action League’s role in the community and city as a way to situate the Latina/o Education Task Force in relation to Latina/o advocacy and action for their community. Finally, we discuss the implications of this chapter for the community and larger U.S. context.

Development of the Latina/o Community in Rochester

As we reviewed the community’s history, the continued struggle to be seen, heard, and included became clear. That fight is ongoing, as advocates and allies press the city school district and other agencies to acknowledge the particularities of Latina/os’ experiences. Similar to the Chicana/o community in Southern California (Delgado Bernal, 1998), the Latina/o community in Rochester, New York, is characterized by historical and present-day bilingualism in (devalued) Spanish and (privileged) English; migration to and from home countries (circular migration to and from the Island, in the case of the majority Puerto Rican population); economic marginalization; and underachievement in schools. In addition, the numerous strengths and resources characteristic of the community are also particular—resulting from navigating ← 13 | 14 → and surviving in such oppressive conditions—and include familismo (familism); mutualismo y respeto (mutual respect that is reciprocal); bilingualism and biculturalism that facilitate code-switching; and mestiza (consciousness that comes from living in two “worlds”) (Anzaldúa, 1999; see also Du Bois, 1903).

Karen McCally’s (2007)2 article on the history of Rochester’s Puerto Rican community demonstrates Latina/os’ adaptability and resilience, supported by highly networked and enduring social relations. These strengths highlight the community’s responses to over 60 years of poverty and displacement. This “combination of opportunities and challenges…was instrumental for building the barrio…a network of families, traditions, and institutions” for mutual support (p. 5). These cultural and social spaces were established amidst economic and ethnic discrimination, so developing political power was a fight in multiple settings, i.e., city, county, and state government, as well as schools.

Building the Barrio

Between 1945 and 1960, approximately 20% of Puerto Ricans moved from the Island to the US. The majority of these 500,000 people settled in New York and New Jersey. By 1970, Rochester had become home to the second largest Puerto Rican community in the state (McCally, 2007). Susan Costa, a longtime Puerto Rican community activist, wrote in 1998 that Rochester’s Puerto Rican community was like an extension of the Island, given the strong ties between Rochester on the mainland and Puerto Rico. These rich social, cultural, and linguistic ties were critical to the community establishing itself in the face of economic and social hostility:

[O]ne overarching theme is the effort to carve out space—not only physical space, but social and cultural space as well. Puerto Ricans speak less of neighborhoods than of barrios. The barrio is not a geographic area, but rather a network of families, traditions, and institutions. As the endurance of the [Puerto Rican] festival shows, against great odds, the barrio has adapted and endured. (McCally, 2007, p. 5)

The image of carving out, digging into, and claiming space alludes to some of the challenges Latina/os faced in the early years in Rochester. St. Michael’s Catholic Church has been the center of the Latina/o community in northeast Rochester (an area called Marketview Heights) since the 1970s, when urban renewal programs demolished residences around St. Bridget’s Church that had been the center since the 1950s. As Father Laurence Tracey, a pastor and ← 14 | 15 → longtime advocate for the Latina/o community noted, “Latinos live a life centered around their faith” (quoted in Saenz, 2011, p. 23). As a result, the community first developed near their churches:

The original Latino barrios in Rochester were around St. Bridget’s Church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, First Spanish Church of the Nazarene, and St. Patrick’s Church. When urban renewal programs of the early 1970s demolished the neighborhood surrounding St. Bridget’s Church, the community simply packed up and moved up the road to surround St. Michael’s Church on North Clinton Avenue. (Saenz, 2011, p. 23)

In both social and geographic terms, the community clustered together. Costa (1980) wrote in the Proposal to Fund the Spanish Action Coalition, “Leaders in Marketview Heights…say that Marketview Heights feels like a community because it is one, that residents very much have social, cultural, psychological and political investments in the area” (cited in McCally, 2007, p. 17). The importance of strong networks as critical neighborhood structures is clear. One function of these structures was mediating provision of traditional services (economic development, job training, legal services) in the context of the barrio as a “system of social relationships—relationships of mutual support—that had to be the basis for any successful path to uplift” (McCally, 2007, p. 16).

Political Leadership

The creation of a recognized Latina/o space was not an easy process. McCally notes that progressive community organizing efforts within the Puerto Rican community were difficult due to structural politics and the reliance on service-oriented approaches to community development. In response, community activists formed the Spanish Action Coalition in 1978 to serve as a “‘teaching center’ that instilled in Puerto Ricans the capacity to use collective strength to confront the larger institutions, such as City Hall, to help shape the policies that would have far-reaching effects in their neighborhoods” (McCally, 2007, p. 16). The United Way of Greater Rochester Latino Leadership Development Program started in the 1980s to support self-development and self-advocacy for the community. In 2003, the Latino Advocacy Coalition formed to train Latinos to run for office and work on campaigns. These arenas of advocacy provided a context for efforts to work toward more equitable and successful educational opportunities and outcomes for its children. A clear example is Ibero’s work to establish bilingual education programs in the Rochester City School District, as well as its establishment of the Puerto Rican Youth Development program in the early 1970s. This advocacy has ← 15 | 16 → continued amidst other forms of silencing, including on the part of governmental bodies.

Government Neglect

The title of a November 1980 report—Hispanic Alternatives: A City Industrial and Economic Neighborhood Development Analysis (HACIENDA)—made a not-so-subtle statement about the community’s struggles. Hacienda is a Spanish term used to refer to large sugar plantations in Puerto Rico that were worked by tenant farmers but owned by absentee landlords living off the Island (McCally, 2007, p. 17). The large profits were taken out of Puerto Rico, leaving farmworkers as an invisible and cheap workforce. The persistent lack of economic investment by the City of Rochester in Marketview Heights presents a similar image. In the early 1900s, Sicilian and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to the area, working mostly as laborers in garment and shoe factories (Paris, 2013). They added to an already crowded area, replacing Irish and German residents who had immigrated earlier in the century and were then moving out to surrounding suburbs. Without zoning laws, building construction was haphazard and low quality. According to Paris (2013),

The City of Rochester, however, was slow to recognize these dangers. The late teens and early twenties saw some interest by public health officials in amending the structural concerns, but a housing shortage inspired home-building in areas that could support it, namely the suburbs. Fixing decaying homes in urban areas was put on the back burner (McKelvey 11–12).…This turbulence continued throughout the twentieth century. (pp. 29, 30)

This inattention has continued into the 21st century, as Rochester has focused on providing social services rather than supporting economic development. Today, the majority of properties in Marketview Heights are residential (51%), but less than half of those are owner-occupied (Paris, 2013, p. 32). Eighteen percent are vacant lots, and 6% are abandoned buildings. Importantly, 11% of vacant properties and abandoned buildings are city-owned. The similarity between Marketview Heights and a hacienda is found in the concentration of cheap labor and the outflow of money in the form of property and income taxes from the area to the city.

Current Demographics of Latina/os in Rochester: City/Suburban Concentrations

Despite disinvestment and structural oppression, the barrio proves to be resilient (McCally, 2007). As Quiñones, Ares, Padela, Hopper, & Webster (2009) ← 16 | 17 → report, “Now it encompasses miles, rather than blocks, as some Puerto Ricans have moved into suburban areas and changing demographics have resulted in a hybrid blend of Latino diasporas, including fast-growing Dominican and Cuban populations” (p. 18). The Latina/o community continues to grow, having added 30% more residents in the last decade and making up 7% of the total county population in 2010. They also are relatively younger than the rest of the population: 42% are under the age of 20 and just 5% are 65 or older (Quiñones, Ares, Padela, Hopper, & Webster, 2011). Table 2.1 shows the diversity within the Latina/o community in Rochester, highlighting the heterogeneity in terms of country of origin as well as the assortment of Spanish linguistic groups found in the city.

Table 2.1. Rochester, NY, Population, Hispanic or Latino and Race, 2000 Census.

Total Population219,773100.00%
Hispanic or Latino (of any race)28,03212.75%
  Puerto Rican21,8979.96%
  Other Hispanic or Latino41071.87%
Not Hispanic or Latino19,174187.25%
  White alone97,39544.32%

Note. Source – U.S. Census Bureau (2000). http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src-CF.

While the Latina/o populations of the City of Rochester and the outlying suburbs have grown since 2000, the suburban population grew four times faster than the city’s. Despite that growth, the City remained home to most of the county’s Latina/os. In 2000, for every 100 Latina/os living in the city, there were 39 living in the suburbs. By 2010, the ratio was 100 to 57. There were just over 28,000 Latina/o individuals living in the city in 2000. By 2010, that number had risen 23% to nearly 35,000. The suburban Latina/o population grew 77% in the same period, from about 11,000 to nearly 20,000. More Latina/o students are graduating from high school, 53% in 2011, though relatively few Latina/o residents in Monroe County continue their education beyond secondary school. Among adults 25 and older, 16% of Latina/os had a bachelor’s degree or higher, up from 10% in 1980 (Rosenberg, 2012). Unemployment rates among Latina/o residents continue to be about double that of the general population, and poverty rates are also ← 17 | 18 → twice those found in the total population in every age category, with a third of Latina/os overall living in poverty. The share of Latina/o households with mid-level incomes is about the same as households countywide, but Latina/os have a smaller share with high incomes and a bigger share with low incomes. Homeownership rates among Latina/o householders have grown to 41%, though this remains far below the countywide rate (Rosenberg, 2012).

Within this historical context and in light of present conditions, Latina/os have had to continue to organize as a community to advocate for themselves as a unique and important part of the city and larger regional area; to demand quality education, including bilingual programs and services in schools; and to take initiative in social welfare and political leadership. Latina/o leaders have been striving to advocate for their community for decades, in some cases in coalition with other oppressed groups.

Striving to be Recognized and Addressed in Multiracial Coalitions

In the early 2000s, the northeast region of Rochester was home to half of the city’s Latina/o population (Ares, O’Connor, Larson, & Carlisle, 2007). In 2014 the northeast area of Rochester that includes North and South Marketview Heights was still predominantly African American and Latina/o. In terms of languages spoken and countries of origin, 5.4% (North) and 11% (South) of Marketview Heights residents speak a language other than English, and 11.4% (North) and 14.2% (South) are foreign born.

As is true in many urban areas, this region of Rochester “is a place where long-established populations…[are] dealing with issues that mirror demographic trends seen in California and New York City, where long-standing African American and Latina/o communities in urban centers are negotiating changes in proportional representation in the political, education, social, and economic landscape” (Quiñones et al., 2011, p. 107).

Research on Latina/o and African American community coalition building seeks to step outside the Black/White binary to understand the nuances of these partnerships (Dache-Gerbino & Kiyama, 2011; Zamora, 2011). Collective efforts among marginalized communities are common (East Harlem, New York, 1964, Lee & Diaz, 2007; New York City, Priestley, 2007), but they are also commonly contentious. Straus’s (2009) work in Compton, California, shows that tensions often emerge between marginalized groups over “schooling in under-resourced communities” (p. 508). Perceptions among Latina/o and African American communities are also influenced by ← 18 | 19 → “media, political elites, and community organizations…which single out Latino anti-black racism and gang violence as the culprit of black-Latino tension on the one hand, and African American anti-immigrant sentiments stemming from a perceived sense of threat due to the ever-growing rise in Latina/o power on the other hand” (Zamora, 2011, p. 299). Rochester has experienced its own history of coalition building among these communities, with those of the 1960s operating similarly to New York City Black–Puerto Rican coalitions that joined forces with African American leaders in the face of two “urban renewal” policies that displaced many African Americans and Puerto Ricans (McCally, 2007). However, a recent community transformation effort in the mid-2000s, the Coalition for the Children of Lakeview (CCL), which sought resident-driven reform in an area of Rochester inhabited by people from a mix of cultural and racial/ethnic backgrounds, shows that coalition building among Latina/os and African Americans continues to be fragmented and difficult to sustain. Evidence of this is seen also by Latina/o students, as they reported being ostracized by their African American peers based on, for example, their speaking Spanish (Kiyama & Harris, 2010). What follows next is an examination of the CCL in Rochester, an exemplar of these phenomena.

Uneasy Coalitions with Other “Others”

Findings from critical ethnographic research of the CCL3 in Rochester highlight the continuing divisions created by policies and structures outside the communities of color themselves (e.g., competition among adjacent not-for-profit and neighborhood organizations for grant monies) as well as internal tensions and contradictions that emerged as Latina/os and African Americans negotiated the specifics of the reform (Ares et al., 2007; Larson, Ares, & O’Connor, 2008; Quiñones et al., 2010). The CCL was formed by the Rochester City School District in 2006 to address underperformance in a set of seven schools in northeast Rochester. Given that these schools had struggled for years, the CCL sought comprehensive transformation in CCL neighborhoods that had survived in the face of racial/ethnic discrimination, poor health and social welfare outcomes, underemployment, high crime, and government disinvestment (Larson et al., 2008). Analyses revealed that the leaders of the CCL had to establish themselves and the organization as credible to the larger Rochester community, especially area residents and potential funders. Transparency and inclusion were stressed in meetings, in documents, and in publications. In fact, preassigned mixtures of ethnicities and affiliation were created to include representatives of ethnic/racial groups as well as ← 19 | 20 → social service agencies and government entities. In one example, “three residents were to be added to the Subcommittee, according to the background criteria of ‘one African American, one Latina/o, and one of no specific criteria’” (Quiñones et al., 2009, pp. 11, 12). However, despite the CCL practice of co-constructing policy and other documents with residents, it was not until after the texts, policies, and procedures of the initiative had been constructed that Spanish translations were provided. Of most importance to understanding the largely African American and Latina/o CCL coalition, a contentious process of negotiating the CCL’s public face highlighted the fragility and tensions involved:

Two dimensions of unity emerged: 1) positioning the [CCL]…initiative as an effort undertaken by a socially cohesive, collective identity of African Americans, Latinos and biracial people who shared oppressions—a kind of collective “Other”—and 2) challenges to unity within the effort and the [CCL] itself, with Latina/os advocating for recognition of cultural diversity and for specific attention to the Latina/o community having unique features, experiences, desires, resources, and needs. (Quiñones et al., 2009, p. 18)

Two prominent Latinas in the CCL leadership argued that the particularities of Latina/os’ experiences in Rochester were largely being ignored in favor of portraying a cohesive coalition. The “desire on the parts of Latina/os was to be recognized explicitly as a community with particular experiences, histories, interests, political and social positioning, needs and resources” (Quiñones et al., 2009, p. 24). Experiences of bilingualism and biculturalism, immigration status, and culturally grounded norms and expectations for interactions, for example, were made invisible in favor of a collective “Other” that the powers external to the CCL were more accustomed to recognizing. In the end, the internal divisions led Latina/os to withdraw from the CCL effort, which contributed to the collapse of the initiative.

The CCL represents another example of the ongoing advocacy required for recognition as a unique community with particular assets and needs. Bilingual education programs were established only after an act of civil disobedience (occupying the superintendent’s office, an action described later in this chapter). To safeguard the quality of those programs, Latina/o activists had to demand continual monitoring by a community council. More recently, the RCSD’s superintendent during 2008–2011 spoke of wanting to serve “all students” in response to requests to make explicit reference to Spanish-speaking students (personal communication), and refused to acknowledge that the generic programming wasn’t serving “all” students well. The vigilance Latina/os have had to maintain to ensure attention to the particular constellation of resources and needs of the community is clear. ← 20 | 21 →

Within this historical context and sociopolitical milieu in Rochester, one organization, the Ibero-American Action League, has emerged as the leading social service and advocacy organization for Latina/os. Given its prominence in the community and its commissioning of the research reported in this book, we describe Ibero in detail next.

Why Was Ibero Formed?

Ibero was formed in 1965 through partnership with the Catholic Church as a result of concerns about Latina/o laborers in local agricultural work. The Church’s central role in Rochester’s Latina/o community is evident in that its Spanish apostolate (or laypersons’ ministry) was the original source of funding, space, and personnel for the Ibero-American Action League, now the most prominent Latino-serving agency in the greater Rochester area. In 1965 a group of Latina/o leaders met with a monsignor from the local Catholic diocese to discuss the absence of the Catholic Church from migrant camps of the Rochester area. It was decided that the Catholic Church needed to be more involved, and a sum of $5,000 was allocated to start a migrant program. Jorge Colón was appointed the first director, and an advisory board was established (Ibero-American Action League Archives, n.d.). In 1966 the program was officially started under the auspices of the Catholic Church, with two paid staff and 25 volunteers. After the first year, it was evident that more staff was needed, and the Church granted a larger allocation to extend the program into 1967. By 1968 it had become evident that a single agency was needed to adequately address the needs of the Hispanic community.

Community leaders made another appeal to the newly appointed bishop of Rochester, Bishop Fulton Sheen, who was sympathetic to the growing Spanish-speaking community. The bishop provided financial support for organizing efforts to fund a building. He later agreed to allow the use of the Concordia Hall, which was part of the rectory of a Catholic church in the northeast area of Rochester where most Latina/os settled as they came from Puerto Rico (McCally, 2007). The building was later donated to the program.

The next step was to identify other funding to expand the availability of programming. Other funding mechanisms were identified, but because of the central association with the Catholic Church they were not feasible; separation of church and state laws prevented the program from obtaining government funding. After researching funding options, officers and staff decided to separate from the church, and in 1968 the Ibero-American Action League was ← 21 | 22 → incorporated. In 1970, the Ibero-American Action League received funding from the United Way, or Community Chest, as it was known then.

Ibero has been a beacon of hope for 45 years for the unserved and underserved Latina/o population in Rochester. Today, the agency serves over 10,000 children and families yearly. It is the only Latina/o-serving organization providing services to RCSD schools. Ibero also offers bilingual early childhood development services. In addition, it offers evidence-based mentoring and after-school programming, as well as summer employment for youth. The endowment fund provides scholarships to college-bound Latina/o students. Ibero is a founding and present sponsor of the Eugenio Maria de Hostos4 dual-language charter school in the Rochester City School District; the school serves grades K–8. Ibero also provides pregnancy prevention services and the Padres Comprometidos (Engage Parents) curriculum that equips parents with the tools they can use to become leaders in advocacy for the education of their children.

Ibero believes that if people are empowered and given equal opportunities they can carve out better lives for themselves. Although it has accomplished many things, Ibero continues to struggle to help the community achieve parity and equality with other cultural communities in Rochester. The agency strengthens communities and families by empowering the individual to achieve his or her greatest potential, and by being a vehicle of hope for those in need, while appreciating cultural values. Ibero-American Action League promotes, plans, develops, and operates programs, services, and activities for the educational, economic, and social progress of the Latina/o community. While the focus is on Latina/os, people from other cultural groups are served as well.

Services are varied and include services to families at risk of entering or re-entering foster care, emergency services for families in crisis, access to affordable housing, and services to seniors and to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Ibero provides around-the-clock residential services to individuals with intellectual disabilities, as well as supported employment services.

Community, Social, Economic, and Political Issues, and Educating Latina/o Children

Housing, social services, and political leadership were all things that the community had to advocate for and also provide for themselves over decades in Rochester. In terms of housing, given the depressed physical condition of the northeast area of Rochester where most Latina/os lived, Ibero developed Los Flamboyañes housing project in 1974 to provide Latina/os with new ← 22 | 23 → housing options (Saenz, 2011). Over time, Los Flamboyañes has evolved to become a center for community services other than housing. The Hispanic Community Center, located on the bottom floor, provides a wide range of services, including transportation, translation, and health care social services (Jiménez, 2011). Importantly, Los Flamboyañes, though a strong community space, still relegates Latina/os to substandard living conditions. A 2009 Housing and Urban Development (HUD) inspection of Section 8 Housing Quality Standards gave Los Flamboyañes a score of 47, well below the average. The website reported that “any property scoring below an 86 should be avoided” (“Section 8 Housing: Los Flamboyanes,” n.d.). Given the concentration of Latina/os in this area of Rochester and the high rates of poverty found there, these housing options likely cannot just “be avoided” by the residents who have long called them home. Taken together, we see an important narrative of these housing projects: They aren’t just a place for people to live—they seem to represent a microcosm of what is going on with Latina/os in Rochester, as well as in other urban areas.


Schooling is one of the issues that the Ibero-American Action League has been paying attention to since its inception. In the 1960s (and still today), many Latina/o children were dropping out of school, and there was an achievement gap between Latina/os and their White counterparts. In 1968 Ibero started demanding the establishment of a bilingual education program. Families were concerned that their children were placed in special education classes because they did not know the English language, and when they were tested they did not pass because the tests were in English. Lacking bilingual education opportunities, Latina/o children were placed in classes conducted in English, making it very difficult for them to achieve. According to Escher’s personal experiences as an advocate and service provider, the Latina/o culture was seen as a weakness rather than a source of strength. Due to the negative environment, the children felt disengaged and disregarded.

Ibero and their allies took many drastic measures to demand educational programs and services designed to serve the Latina/o community specifically. Those efforts ranged from taking over the school district superintendent’s office to having community activists at the board of education meetings denounce the lack of bilingual education for Spanish-speaking children. Under pressure from the Latina/o community, in 1969 the district named a committee of eight members—four individuals from the district and four ← 23 | 24 → individuals from the community—who were charged with exploring existing bilingual programs to inform the development of such a program in Rochester. In 1969 the district received a grant from the federal government’s Bilingual Education Act Title VII program for the committee to study and visit bilingual programs in other cities such as Miami, New York City, and Philadelphia. The committee made its recommendation, and in 1970 the district started a program named Adelante, a “community designed, federally funded bilingual education program” (McCally, 2007, p. 2). Community activists also forced the district to start a bilingual education council to continue monitoring and advocating for the rights of Latina/o students in the Rochester City School District (Ibero-American Action League Archives, n.d.). That council continues to exist today. The insistence and persistence of demands made by the community have created supports and avenues for civic engagement for a long time now.

However, the pattern of invisibility seen earlier in the formation of the barrio and in the lack of attention paid to educational aspirations and attainments of Latina/os in Rochester continues to be the plight of the community. The issues raised earlier in this chapter prompted two reports—the AHORA reports commissioned by the Ibero-American Action League, one in 1986 and another in 1999, that sought to lay out policy recommendations for the RCSD to act upon in order to better serve Latina/o students and families. These reports show how members of the Latina/o community and allies have continuously documented the needs of Latina/o students. However, these concerns have never been fully addressed, and still today, the academic and social outcomes of Latina/o students continue to be lower than district averages.

Two Reports: Repeated Calls for Action

The 1986 AHORA report was a landmark publication: “This study marks an important beginning. It is the first time Hispanics as a distinct group in the general student population have been the subject of a special study aimed at seeking needed changes. The data gathered from Task Force research constitute the first analysis of factors as they particularly affect the educational process/opportunities for Hispanic students in the City schools” (Rochester City School District, 1986, p. 1). One high school and one elementary school both had task forces that collaborated with the Latina/o community in gathering and analyzing data, as well as recommending policies and practices to better support Latina/o students’ academic and social success. That it was not until 1986 that such work was undertaken speaks loudly to the invisibility ← 24 | 25 → of the community, which had represented a significant subpopulation in the RCSD for decades. These reports from 1986 and 1999 identify a number of issues that present obstacles for Latina/o students in the RCSD, including tracking, magnet schools, bilingual education, staffing, and retention.


The RCSD offers both “local” and “Regents”5 diplomas for high school graduation. Local diplomas are available only to students identified as having disabilities; historically, these diplomas had been available to all students, based on the number and kinds of courses they completed. Regents diplomas qualify students for college admission, while local diplomas do not. Passing the Regents classes and their exams is a kind of gatekeeper for pursuing postsecondary education, and thus creates two academic tracks. Across the 13 years between the two AHORA reports, this kind of tracking resulted in Latina/o students being overrepresented in non-Regents, lower track classes, and underrepresented in higher track, college preparatory classes. In 1986, 75% of Latina/o secondary students were in non-Regents programs. According to the 1986 AHORA report, “… Hispanic student opportunities for higher education and higher status jobs are limited by their disproportionate placement in the District’s non-Regents programs. It is also possible to speculate that, given the relationship between school failure and dropping out, the content and dynamics of the non-Regents program may have a negative influence on Hispanic retention rates” (Rochester City School District, 1986, p. 11). The 1999 report shows that Regents course enrollments did not reflect the increase in numbers of Latina/o students from 1993–1994 to 1997–1998. Major Achievement Program6 enrollments went up (3% from 1993–1994 to 1997–1998), but still did not reflect the 17.8% of Hispanics in the total student population. Finally, more students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses (33 in 1993–1994 versus 60 in 1997–1998), but those enrollments remain in single-digit percentages of the total student populations.

Persistent placement in lower track programs contributes to underperformance and to lack of access to rigorous content. For example, Harris’s (2011) study of middle schools adopting a standards-based approach to comprehensive urban school reform found “a complex manifestation of curriculum differentiation where schools had multiple types of academic tracks that responded to students’ differences including comprehensive learning groups, subject-specific groups, and temporary learning groups used for test preparation.…[S]pecial education students and English ← 25 | 26 → Language learners were least likely to gain access to [English Language Arts and mathematics] content” (p. 844). In Rochester, reliance on standardized tests that were culturally biased misrepresented Latina/o and other nondominant students’ performance, which was part of the reason for this underrepresentation.

Finally, the 1999 AHORA report reveals that relationships with Latina/o families and the district remained fractured. For example, the lack of parental involvement in tracking decisions was cited as a clear concern. Importantly, as the report notes, “Methods the schools do use to try to inform and involve Hispanic parents in tracking decisions do not address important language and socio-cultural barriers” (Rochester City School District, 1999, p. 3). This book provides more depth of information about parental involvement and their roles in decision-making, but suffice it to say that parents’ visibility in schools is still problematic.

Magnet Schools

The history of magnet schools in Rochester is long—they were implemented in 1964 as part of the District’s open enrollment policy, a major school reform approach that still exists today (Brazwell, 2011). This policy means that students and families can choose to enroll in schools outside their neighborhoods and communities based on their desires to attend particular schools with specific programs. For example, an arts-focused and a democratic, social justice focused school have been in the District for more than 2 decades. Today, those 2 magnet and 12 specialty schools (for example, technology, business and finance, engineering and manufacturing, global media, bioscience and health) are among the District’s 16 high schools (Vargas, 2014).

According to the 1986 report, underrepresentation of Latina/os in magnet schools was exacerbated by the lack of specific focus on Latina/o students: “District policy states that minority enrollments in the magnet schools should be plus or minus 10% of the overall District enrollment. There are no specific policy goals to increase Hispanic participation in magnet schools and targeted recruitment of Hispanics is limited” (Rochester City School District, 1986, p. 4). Lumping Latina/o and other nondominant groups together masks the particular experiences of Latina/os and contributes to their invisibility. While the percentage of students in magnet high schools (which are implied to be of higher quality) rose, it still did not reflect the proportion they made up of the total student population. ← 26 | 27 →

English Language Learners and Bilingual Education Programs

By 1986, bilingual programming was offered in two schools, one high school and one middle/junior high school. Most Latina/o students were funneled from their neighborhood schools to these two schools as they reached grades 7–12. Lack of professional development and teacher preparation focused on English Language Learner (ELL) students for “general” education teachers was cited as a barrier to academic success for students in other schools (Rochester City School District, 1986, pp. 15, 18). By 1999, there was an elementary bilingual program, serving 1,550 students in 1993–1994 and 1,600 in 1997–1998. Though there was an increase in the number of students served, those 1,600 students represented a lower percentage of Latina/os in the district overall. The 1999 report noted that responses to increasing numbers of student labeled LEP (Limited English Proficient) were limited, despite calls for programming specifically designed for this population. Further, the exempt status for LEP students in reporting standardized scores to New York State’s Board of Education masked the numbers and achievement status of these students. Also, testing all students in English masks the achievements of LEPs, and likely diverts educators from effective English for Speakers of Other Languages strategies. The call for “specialized services to LEP students” (p. 30) again speaks to the invisibility of this population. In addition, the lack of intervention and extended day programs designed specifically for Latina/o students, including ELLs, as well as recommendations for dedicating specific summer school slots reflective of the percentage of Hispanic students, indicate the lack of responsiveness to the Latina/o community.


Related to the invisibility of students, both the 1986 and 1999 reports indicate that Latina/o staff were not employed in sufficient numbers, given the number of Latina/o students, nor were they placed where Latina/o ELLs were concentrated. The 1999 report highlighted the cultural and linguistic invisibility of students, as non-Latina/o “staff may not understand cultural practices and norms” of the community (Rochester City School District, 1999, p. 39), citing national literature that emphasizes the importance of personal attention and caring within the school as “potent factors” in the lives of Latina/o students.

Two other points made in 1999 strengthen the picture of an unseen Latina/o student population. The Singleton Formula used for staff distribution considered all “minorities” as a single group, precluding specific attention ← 27 | 28 → to particular populations, including Latina/os, when making placement decisions. However, the AHORA report showed that one local high school had an enrollment of 26% Latina/o students, but only 2% Latina/o certified staff. Another had 18% Latina/o enrollment and only 1% Latina/o certified staff. This policy ignores the cultural and racial/ethnic diversity present in the district. That the 1999 report asks that Latina/o staff be placed in 9th grade (a pivotal year for retention) implies that there was no specific attention paid to this population.


A major finding from the 1986 report was that there was a lack of data on retention rates of Latina/o students, which imposed a major limitation on the district’s ability to understand reasons for poor achievement and high dropout rates. No retention data were being collected or analyzed longitudinally by ethnic/racial group. Similar lack of attention was seen in the 1999 report, leading the authors to call for a special cohort study that concentrated on Latina/o students starting in middle school and following through high school.

The 1986 task force cited the lack of multicultural curricula at the elementary and secondary levels, particularly as regards local Caribbean and Puerto Rican populations, as contributing to low retention. In addition, the 1986 report made recommendations regarding two factors important to keeping Latina/o students in school: “expanded extracurricular opportunities and personal attention and caring” (Rochester City School District, 1986, p. 10). Caring in this case often has a particular cultural meaning in Latina/o communities. Recent research by Liou, Antrop-González, and Cooper (2009) emphasizes the importance of caring teachers in Puerto Rican students’ school experiences, describing caring “student-teacher relationships as a way to enable urban youth to achieve academic success. In turn, these relationships are predicated on teachers who are not only passionate about their content areas, but who are also passionate about their students and continuously strive to know their students, their families, and their communities well” (p. 542). Student participants in that study defined such teachers as people who “were interested in getting to know them on a personalized basis, who could be trusted enough to talk about their personal problems and seek advice, and who would hold them to high academic expectations” (p. 549). ← 28 | 29 →

Continuing Advocacy, Exercising Agency: Another Task Force

In 2008, in recognition of and with deep frustration at the consistent invisibility of Latina/os’ experiences, Ibero embarked on a strategic planning process that would set the direction of the agency for the next three years. As part of the process they conducted focus groups with different stakeholders within the community to determine what the community wanted Ibero to focus on. Among many recommendations, there was one loud and clear message: The agency needed to put together a task force of different community stakeholders to continue to advocate for improvement in the education system and provide information, recommendations, and gritos for action. This time, though, they began a partnership with researchers from the University of Rochester (described below) to engage in a rigorous and systematic study of the community, drawing on the perceived power of the university to sway school district policy and action.

Impetus for the Creation of the Task Force7

As is laid out in more detail in later chapters, the issue of Latina/o academic underachievement and dropout has been a persistent national and local problem (Gándara & Contreras, 2009). As part of her advocacy for Rochester’s Latina/o community, Hilda Escher engaged in continuing discussions with then-RCSD superintendent Jean Claude Brizard about the lack of particular attention being paid to Latina/o students and families. Brizard suggested that Ibero partner with researchers from the University of Rochester (UR) as a way to heighten attention and add credibility to efforts to garner attention and resources. This suggestion—to draw on the symbolic power of the university in order to be treated as “legitimate” and worthy of attention—again points to the plight of invisibility plaguing the Latina/o community over decades.

Undaunted, and determined to address the continuing high dropout rate and underachievement among Latina/o students, Escher drew on an existing partnership Ibero had with a team of University of Rochester researchers who had conducted a long-term ethnography of a local community change initiative (see Larson, Ares, & O’Connor, 2008). A member of that team was Nancy Ares, whom Escher invited to form a research team. Ares recruited Kiyama and Harris to help develop and then lead the study. To ensure that the Latina/o community would provide direction for this work, Escher assembled an Education Task Force of local educators, community members, parents, and students to partner with the University of Rochester researchers to mobilize a broad-based effort to examine the complex issues ← 29 | 30 → related to educational attainment (Ibero-American Action League, 2008; Kiyama & Harris, 2010).

The Task Force was “charged with implementing the education strategies outlined by the Ibero-American Action League strategic plan and creating and implementing action items” identified through the study “School Experiences of Latina/o Students: A Community-Based Study of Resources, Challenges, and Successes” (Kiyama & Harris, 2010). That study led to the writing of this book. It is important to acknowledge that Escher and the staff from Ibero have witnessed the lack of attention to the needs of Latina/o students in schools in the course of their work in the RCSD. These everyday experiences align with the rationale for the Task Force. The research allowed for a more systematic understanding of what Ibero staff experienced on a daily basis.

Contribution of the Research Collaboration with the University of Rochester

This research collaboration has produced invaluable information that the community and Ibero employ to continue the fight for the educational and other rights of Latina/o students. It has been uniquely significant because having researchers who are experts in education practice and policy as active members of the Task Force lends credibility to the issues that Ibero and allies continue to keep at the forefront. True to the commitment to community-based participatory research, the dissemination of findings has crossed scholarly, practitioner, media, and community boundaries. The researchers have done radio and television interviews and have made presentations and facilitated workshops on the findings of the study. There have also been essays written for the local news media, as well as press conferences. There seems to be a little light at the end of the tunnel. In 2014, because of ongoing advocacy, the Rochester City School District Board of Education approved two new positions: Director of Latino Affairs and Director of Social Justice, the latter of which reports directly to the board. Although this work had to be pursued for decades, and repeatedly, and will undoubtedly need to continue to maintain these recent gains, those developments bode well for increased visibility and inclusion of Latina/os.


Given the continuing growth of the Latina/o community in Rochester, the issues for the city highlighted by this book will likely be relevant to its outlying suburbs. The glimmers of hope seen over time are as important ← 30 | 31 → as the illumination of the challenges. Although there has been a continuous struggle for equal treatment and inclusion, for visibility and recognition, some progress has been made. The bilingual program continues to exist in the RCSD. Latina/os have more representation in areas of local government such as the school board, county legislature, and city council. Ibero opened and continues to support a dual-language charter school, while at the same time continuing to work with the RCSD to address the disturbing trend of Latina/o youth dropping out and underachieving academically.

Latina/os are becoming more and more numerous across the U.S., so what is reported here will also be of interest to cities and communities more broadly. The history and context provided here are not only important for setting up the remaining chapters in this book—they are also invaluable for people active in policy, practice, and research aimed at improving the social and educational experiences of Latina/os and for highlighting the unrelenting advocacy of Latina/o leadership.


 1 We use the term Latina/o (Latina for female, Latino for male) to refer to people who reside in the United States and have cultural affinity with Spanish-speaking countries of origin. The U.S. census uses the term Hispanic. In this chapter, the term Latina/o will be used as a more inclusive, pan-ethnic term to connote this ethnic population. This chapter does not discuss the political dimensions of the use of these two terms.

 2 The bulk of the history of Puerto Ricans in Rochester cited here is from McCally’s 2007 article “Building the Barrio: A Story of Rochester’s Puerto Rican Pioneers.” Rochester History, 70(2), 1–24.

 3 A pseudonym

 4 Nancy Ares is a board member.

 5 Regents courses are high school courses designed to prepare students to pass Regents examinations in core courses, e.g., mathematics, English language arts, history, and science. Regents examinations in those areas must be passed to receive a Regents diploma.

 6 According to the RCSD website, the “Major Achievement Program (MAP) is a program that provides enrichment and rigor in all content areas, inquiry based learning, self discovery and awareness, interaction and cooperation with peers, student leadership and school community involvement, opportunities for parent involvement, technological application” (http://www.rcsdk12.org/domain/3088).

 7 This task force was funded by the Rochester Area Community Foundation. The authors wish to thank them for their support. ← 31 | 32 →


← 32 | 33 →


3. A Community-Based Approach: Review of Community Context, Frameworks, and Methods


The two preceding chapters in this collection describe the call to action that served as the starting point for this project, as well as the rich history and years of advocacy embedded within the local Latina/o community. What we provide in this chapter are an overview and the rationale behind the community-based research approach that guided our work. In addition, we detail the theoretical frameworks informing the study, the participants, data collection, and analysis procedures.

Community-Based Research

The development of this study and the subsequent community advocacy and involvement that followed initial dissemination of research findings was guided by the principles of community-based research. Community-based research (CBR) is defined as “a partnership of students, faculty, and community members who collaboratively engage in research with the purpose of solving a pressing community problem or effecting social change” (Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue, 2003, p. 3). CBR engages the community as a participatory partner in project research design and implementation, values community knowledge, and works towards shared understanding and improved ways to address societal problems (Israel, Eng, Schulz, & Parker, 2005; Polanyi & Cockburn, 2003). The term community can represent multiple entities, including educational institutions and community-based organizations, service agencies, and/or groups of people (Strand et al., 2003). In this particular project, the study originated at the community-based organization level, ← 33 | 34 → but the community as a whole represented the local school district, multiple community-based organizations, and the Latina/o community as a collective.

Community-based research differs from traditional academic research in that the research is not conducted on communities, but in collaboration with communities, placing the values, knowledge, and guidance of the community members at the center of the process (Israel et al., 2005; Polanyi & Cockburn, 2003; Strand et al., 2003). This process begins with the community identifying the need for the project. In this particular study, the need began when the Ibero-American Action League issued a call to action regarding the persistent high dropout rates of Latina/o students, and subsequently requested our partnership in furthering that action. The process also includes shared and continuous dialogue to ensure a collective understanding at every stage of the project, including developing research questions and research instruments, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting and disseminating data, and moving the social agenda forward (Israel et al., 2005; Polanyi & Cockburn, 2003; Strand et al., 2003). As a specific example, through multiple meetings with the Education Task Force assembled by the Ibero-American Action League, we participated in a process of shared dialogue to construct the initial research questions and data collection plan. We valued the knowledge of the Task Force when deciding how to best engage Latina/o parents and families, as these families had a history of being silenced, exploited, and marginalized. The silencing and exploitation of Latina/os, which is not unique to the Latina/o community in Rochester, understandably results in distrust of the research team (Vásquez, 2005). Thus, building trust was an important step and a necessary challenge to work through.

Engaging in community-based research can provide important contributions in advancing social change. It is not, however, without its challenges. Research of this sort can yield slow results, requiring the balancing of multiple stakeholder needs, and it is inherently political—requiring knowledge of local histories and power (Maruilo, Cooke, Willis, Rollins, Burke, Bonilla, & Waldref, 2003). In this particular case, this also meant introducing outsiders into an already established Latina/o community. We represent a multiracial/-ethnic and multilingual research team made up of Puerto Ricans, an Afro-Cuban, African Americans, and a Mexican American. Some of us are from the local community, but many of us are not originally from Rochester. Balancing insider/outsider perspectives became a necessary undertaking, not only with the community-based organization with whom we worked, but also and especially with the participants of the study as we worked to (re)establish trust and mutual respect. ← 34 | 35 →

An equally challenging component to CBR is the perceivably modest movement in social action that results from the project (Maruilo et al., 2003; Strand et al., 2003). Yet, this challenge can also result in a strength, as such movement can represent one component of a larger community agenda. Likewise, such results can continue to build capacity and momentum with community members (Strand et al., 2003). We expand on a discussion of community strengths, exploring the two theoretical frameworks that informed this project.

Frameworks Guiding the Study

A combined conceptual framework informed the larger project and complemented the principles of community-based research. The primary theoretical framework informing the project was funds of knowledge. Funds of knowledge refers to the “historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & González, 1992, p. 133). It broadly encompasses language practices, social practices, and various other bodies of knowledge found within home cultures and influenced by life experiences (McIntyre, Rosebery, & González, 2001). Drawing on the funds of knowledge framework was particularly fitting for this project, as we worked from the assumption that students and families had valuable insight, knowledge, and resources to share with respect to educational pathways and the overall issue of Latina/o dropout. We also expected that Latina/o families’ knowledge was shared within and across households, and that we, as educators, had much to learn from their experiences.

The transmission of funds of knowledge from one household cluster member to the next is a process where children often control the ways in which they learn and how they experiment with learning. González, Moll, and Amanti (2005) described funds of knowledge as families’ defining pedagogical characteristics, and argue that the educational process can be greatly enhanced when teachers learn about and understand the everyday lives of their students. Funds of knowledge and the process of transmission and learning can facilitate a powerful and culturally relevant way to tap into communities’ resources in the classroom (González et al., 2005). When funds of knowledge are incorporated into classroom teaching, it provides an opportunity for children to learn from multiple spheres of activity with family relationships, social worlds, and community resources, rather than a single-stranded relationship between the student and the teacher (Moll et al., 1992). This view of families ← 35 | 36 → works from a nondeficit approach; it validates the assets and cultural and cognitive resources found within the families and communities.

The second framework we drew from was community cultural wealth, which recognizes the “knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts possessed and used by Communities of Color to survive and resist racism and other forms of oppression” (Yosso & Garcia, 2007, p. 154). Yosso (2005) suggests that Communities of Color foster cultural wealth through six forms of capital: aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial, and resistant capital. These forms of capital represent important bodies of cultural wealth that are dynamic and build upon one another, positioning social and family contexts as important factors within the broader development of community cultural wealth. This offers an important framework with which to build a community-based research agenda, one which, like funds of knowledge, draws on the home and community knowledge of diverse communities to inform classroom, teaching, and research practices (Moll et al., 1992; Yosso, 2005).

Finally, Latina/o families’ epistemology (Hidalgo, 1999, 2005) served as an important reminder of how Latina/o families’ “collective experience of oppression, familism and shared values, and core values in the service of resistance” were at the center of our engagement with both the broader Latina/o community in Rochester and the families who participated in our focus groups (Hidalgo, 2005, p. 377). This epistemological framework challenges researchers to examine their own conceptual lens while acknowledging that “Latina/o knowledge creation is, in part, a process of accommodation, resistance, and change in response to the cultural and structural forces that shape the lived experiences of individuals and the collective groups” (Hidalgo, 2005, p. 378). Collectively, these frameworks allowed for us to recognize and name the systemic oppression Latina/o families have experienced, while also drawing upon their resistance strategies, funds of knowledge, sources of strength, and resiliency when advocating for the educational advancement of their community.

Creating Research Agenda and Recruitment

Informed by the community call to action, together with the Education Task Force we established the following research questions: What are the critical transition points for Latina/o students in the Rochester City School District? and What contributes to the development of educational aspirations of Latina/o students? The questions resulted from multiple meetings with the Education Task Force and led to the decision to conduct bilingual focus groups with ← 36 | 37 → parents/guardians and students who were current or former students within the district. We were also granted access to student data from the school district, facilitated in part by members of the Education Task Force who worked for the Rochester City School District.

The next steps for this study involved requesting individual student records from the Rochester City School District regarding educational status and attainment between fall 2003 and spring 2007, and creating the focus group interview questions that were first piloted with a group of parents and students in March 2009. Over the course of the next few months, the interview questions were refined and official requests were submitted to the University of Rochester and the Rochester City School District (RCSD). In August 2009 we received approval from the University of Rochester to move forward with the study, and in October 2009 we began recruiting participants.

Recruitment was a multistep process that included community nominations of students and family members from school counselors, local community leaders, teachers, and community advocates. Information letters were sent to every nominated student and/or parent. Additionally, RCSD provided the research team with a contact list of parents of students who had dropped out of school. These individuals and their families were also sent information letters and invited to participate. Finally, recruitment occurred through already established programs within schools (e.g., Latino Youth Development (LYD), the Urban League, and the Family Literacy Program) and through community events such as the LYD College Fair and the RCSD Parent Forum. Focus group interviews began in November 2009 and continued until April 2010. Focus group interviews were held at nine community locations: Latino Youth Development, Sotomayor High School, Tracy High School, Gates High School, St. Michael’s Catholic Church, School No. 9 Elementary School, School No. 22 Elementary School, the RCSD Office of Adult and Career Education Services, and the University of Rochester.


In total, we conducted 31 focus groups, which included 44 parents or guardians and 95 current and/or former students. Of the parent/guardian participants, 81% (36 parents) were female and 18% (8 parents) were male. While most of parents/guardians identified as Puerto Rican (54%), two identified as African American, one as Black/Indian, one as Puerto Rican/Chilean, and one as Puerto Rican/Dominican. Additionally, 13 parents/guardians did not specify their ethnic identity or country of origin. ← 37 | 38 →

Biographical notes

Donna Marie Harris (Author) Judy Marquez Kiyama (Author)

Donna Marie Harris is an independent consultant to school districts and non-profit organizations. She has published articles in Educational Policy and Education and Urban Society . Harris received her PhD in educational policy studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Judy Marquez Kiyama is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Denver. Kiyama has published articles in the American Educational Research Journal and the Journal of Higher Education . Kiyama received her PhD in higher education from the University of Arizona.


Title: The Plight of Invisibility