WINDHAM, Conn. (AP) — As a parent liaison in a school district with a fast-growing Hispanic majority, Ana Lozada navigates a deep cultural divide: Parents think teachers are racist. Teachers doubt parents' commitment. And in many cases, one side speaks only English and the other only knows Spanish.
The disconnect helps explain the struggles of public schools in Windham, a district in rural eastern Connecticut that ranks near the bottom in a state known better for high-performing schools in the tony suburbs of New York City. Last year, the state took the unprecedented step of intervening here to address budget problems, falling test scores and soaring dropout rates.
But the frustrations of the Latino families that Lozada encounters are hardly unique to this blue-collar former mill town: Hispanic achievement gaps have been found in every school district where the data is available in Connecticut, a corner of New England that critics say has been slow to adapt to its largest and fastest-growing minority population.
"There's a lot going on particularly with Spanish families. They're just struggling," said Lozada, 24, who was among seven Spanish-speaking liaisons hired last year after the district came under state supervision.
Connecticut has one of the nation's largest gaps between the scores of high and low-achieving students — a divide that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has pledged to address by making education reform the priority of the legislative session beginning next month. The gap reflects the state's huge disparities in wealth, but also captures the difficulties for minorities.
Despite a nearly 50 percent increase in the Hispanic population over the last decade, state allocations for teaching English as a second language have fallen from $2.5 million in 1999 to $1.9 million this year. But reform advocates say the gap cannot be blamed on language alone, and they argue the state is not doing enough to prepare teachers for student demographics that reflect rising rates of diversity and poverty.
Nationwide, Hispanic students on average lag roughly two grade levels behind white students in reading and math exams, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. But Connecticut is one of only three states in the nation, along with California and Rhode Island, that had Hispanic achievement gaps larger than the national gap at both the fourth- and eighth-grade level, according to a report by the center last year on 2009 test results.
With Hispanics projected to account for one in five students in Connecticut by 2020, advocates warn that the state neglects their struggles at its own peril. Hispanics account for about 479,000 of the state's 3.5 million people.
"If we don't prepare these young people, we will not have sufficient workers to be able to support a population that is aging," said Estela Lopez, a former vice chancellor for academic affairs for Connecticut's state university system.
In Windham, a town 30 miles east of Hartford, Lozada says many Hispanic parents tell her they feel unwelcome at the Windham Center elementary school. Lozada said she has heard some teachers complain about Spanish-speaking families because they need reminders to return forms or permission slips.
"I don't want to say it's because they're Spanish, but it seems to me like that's what it is," she said.
Windham schools Superintendent Ana Ortiz said the schools have had to contend with racism, both internally and externally, in a traditionally white-dominant district that has become nearly 70 percent Hispanic with a recent influx of immigrants from Mexico. It took three local referenda to win approval for the school budget this year, and five last year. For the first time in more than a decade, she said, the district is providing substantial training to students learning English as a second language.
"During budget time it has been very prevalent that people would stand up and say, 'Why do we have to support those kids?' And that has been said," Ortiz said.
For the administrator guiding the overhaul of Windham schools, the problems have more to do with poverty than ethnicity.
"What you have is a community that has gotten very poor very quickly and has not adapted to that challenge," said Steven Adamowski, who noted that the population of poor students qualifying for subsidized lunches has grown from 40 percent to 80 percent in five years. "I see this as a poverty issue. It just so happens large numbers of the students are English-language learners."
He said the Windham district of 3,400 students is in fact a microcosm for issues driving the achievement gap in other Connecticut districts including community dissatisfaction with schools, which leads to budget fights, and the departure of students whose families have other options, which drives up the poverty level.
A student's ethnic background can have a large influence on how they learn, and the teaching force generally has not adapted the skills to connect with Hispanics student, said Jason Irizarry, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education. He said the issues facing Hispanic students may not be receiving the attention they deserve because responsibility is divided among a large number of independent Connecticut school districts.
"It feels like people really are concerned with their own backyard and don't necessarily see this emerging population," he said.
Still, many reform advocates say they are optimistic as Connecticut officials, led by new Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, launch a high-priority campaign to winnow down the achievement gap. The governor has said lawmakers will be asked to allow more state intervention in troubled school districts, changes in teacher evaluation methods and more early childhood education services among other changes.
"I used to say if you're Hispanic, the best thing you could do for your children was move out of Connecticut," Lopez said. "The state is making a commitment to not accepting that achievement gap."