Latino students in the Boston public schools have one of the highest drop-out rates of any group in that city and one of the lowest rates of college enrollment. That disengagement from school starts early, according to Lucia Mayerson-David, director of the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
When looking for a way to help Latino students and English Language Learners achieve academic success, the ILT staff decided to focus on children in the 3rd through 5th grades. In 1988, the ILT launched Project ALERTA, a program that relies heavily on the arts and humanities to fill in gaps in the children’s learning and give them the skills and confidence to succeed in school.
Project ALERTA operates in six elementary schools, three hours a week, for one or two days after school. Teachers recommend the students who participate in the program. The bilingual teachers draw on broad themes such as ancient Egypt, history of technology and inventions, immigration studies, and ecology for a series of hands-on, interdisciplinary, project-based activities. For example, during a module on early civilization, students interpret hieroglyphics, read books, write Egyptian myths, and make paper using ancient techniques.
The curriculum incorporates English, math, and other skills in a way that makes learning fun. “What’s the sense of staying after school to do the same thing you weren’t all that excited to do during the day?” asks Mayerson-David.
During the students’ April vacation, Project ALERTA offers a weeklong academy for the children at the UMass Boston campus, introducing them to a college environment. In summer, Project ALERTA runs a monthlong program to stem learning loss and continue the enrichment process.
One of the chief goals of this intensive intervention is to give Latino students and English Language Learners the skills they need to do well on an all-important admissions test. There are three elite public high schools—the so-called “exam” schools—that serve as Boston’s pipeline into college. Impressively, children who stay in Project ALERTA for three years have a 70 percent chance of gaining admission to those high schools.
Project ALERTA sets students on the path to academic success and staying in school. And, perhaps most important, Project ALERTA exposes Latino students and English Language Learners to a university environment and provides a pathway for students to develop the skills and to access the resources they need to reach college.Nydia O. Mendez Former Director, Office of Language Learning and Support Services, Boston Public Schools