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NMSU Regents Professor speaks on Capitol Hill about working with at-risk students

LAS CRUCES - Luis Vazquez, Regents Professor and associate dean of New Mexico State University's graduate school, was among four national education leaders that testified during an event held June 25 in Washington, D.C., by the Campaign for High School Equity. Vazquez was invited by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials to speak on his expertise of working with at-risk students.

Luis Vazquez (Photo by NMSU Photo)

More than 80 educators, policymakers and stakeholders involved in the education of culturally diverse students gathered for the event on Capitol Hill. They discussed culturally based teaching practices as a methodology for closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students in America's public schools.

Campaign for High School Equity, represented through the National Alliance for Excellence in Education located in Washington, D.C., is a national organization representing communities of color that believe high schools must have the capacity and motivation to prepare every student for graduation, college, work and life. Vazquez joined Villard Sakiestewa Gilbert, president of the National Indian Education Association; Sheryl Denbo, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Equity center; and Rushern Baker, executive director of the Community Teacher Institute, as panelist in the discussion.

Vazquez shared the results of the Academic Cultural Competence Teaching educational model he developed with Engaging Latino Community for Education, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation funded program, designed to strengthen the education pipeline and increase opportunities for Latino students to enter and complete college.

"We wanted to prove kids who have been labeled at-risk can learn and reach their potential. Many times the label is placed on them because of the poverty level or because teachers lack the awareness to work with them. We as teachers call these students at-risk, which allows us to objectify them and then distance ourselves from them," Vazquez told the Washington audience.

"I began the study first with a Ford Foundation grant to work with NMSU freshmen with 17 or lower ACT scores to help them reach their potential," Vazquez said. "Then we expanded to working with Gadsden High School students from the Las Cruces, Gadsden and Hatch school districts with the Kellogg Foundation grant. On the average we have had students with 1.9 to 2.0 grade point averages. Many of these students were expected to drop out, but by their senior year their GPAs were above 2.8."

The educational model developed by Vazquez acknowledges that many of the students earmarked as at-risk are from families who have historical educational academic trauma (HEAT).

"Many times the parents and grandparents experienced a similar situation in educational environments where they were devalued culturally, and sometimes punished, because they spoke Spanish. The academic trauma comes when there was nothing in textbooks that related to their culture or life experiences. Because of the parents and grandparents dropping out of school, the family is more apt to accept it when their children drop out," he said. "We don't need to just provide these students with educational tools, they need to be proud of who they are and develop a strong academic identity as well."

Through participating in several educational domains that he has developed, Vazquez said the student can have success.

"There are several components of the program. One component is Collaborative Learning and Student Success Environments that teaches students to become a very strong academic cohort by working together and supporting each other," Vasquez said.

A second component is teaching academic skills and knowledge (TASK) workshops where the student's learning modality is determined and then they are taught how to learn in the oral, visual, tactile and kinesthetic modalities.

A third component is developing the student's knowledge in interpersonal communication skills (KICS). Vasquez said that the KICS training helps students learn how to communicate in different situations, to different audiences.

"These students are high-contact communicators who pay attention to many of the non-verbal communications displayed by their teachers. This creates internal cognitive interpretations positive or negative that impacts their learning environment. While the honor student may not care about a teacher's reaction, the at-risk kids care how the teacher feels and reacts to them impacting their academic success. It either encourages them or strongly contributes to a low academic self-esteem and identity," he said.

A final component to Vazquez's educational model is parent involvement as outreach ambassadors, which significantly increases the program's retention and graduation rate at all grade levels.