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Pittsfield Latino community faces opportunities, challenges By Jim Therrien, Berkshire Eagle Staff

posted Jun 12, 2014, 12:07 PM by Jv Hampton-VanSant   [ updated Jun 12, 2014, 12:08 PM ]

PITTSFIELD -- A statistical profile of the Latino community in Pittsfield highlights concerns and needs but also significant opportunities for the future, a research institute reported Wednesday.

The statistics reveal, for instance, a segment of the city's population that is rapidly growing and relatively young, while the majority white population here is declining and aging.

During a presentation at Berkshire Community College, researchers with the Gaston Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston covered demographics, public school education and transportation issues.

About 60 government and human-service leaders and members of the Latino community attended the afternoon session.

Sarah Rustan, one of authors of the report, said the profile of Pittsfield is part of a series on different regions in Massachusetts and analyzes U.S. Census, state Department of Education and other data to assist in creation of policies and programs relating to Latinos.

There are 2,250 Latinos in Pittsfield, she said, representing 5.1 percent of the population. The figure is approximately equal to that of African-Americans, while whites make up 86.1 percent of residents, Asians 1.1 percent and other groups total 2.6 percent.

It is significant, Rustan said, that while Pittsfield's population dropped 2.4 percent overall from 2000 to 2010, the Latino population surged 138.2 percent and the white population fell by 8.4 percent over the period.

In terms of median age, the city's Latino population is lowest, at 19; the median age for African-Americans is 29, for Asians 34, and for whites 45. These figures show the potential "for significant contributions" from the Latino community in coming years, Rustan said, in terms of maintaining a youthful work force and in balancing retirees with families with children.

Challenges for the Latino community and those who seek to assist it are revealed in income and education statistics provided by the researchers.

Michael Berardino and Valarie Watson reported on state education department and standardized test score data that show some improvement in recent years, but also areas where Latinos lag behind the general student population.

Latinos now make up 9 percent of students in the city's public schools, they said, while African-Americans are at 11 percent, whites at 72 percent, and others such as Asians, multiracial students or Native Americans, 8 percent.

Since 2006, they said, the enrollment for whites is down 20 percent, while for African-Americans, it is up 3 percent and for Latino students, it rose 50 percent. Overall, the system has seen a 9 percent enrollment decline over the period.

Massachusetts Common Assessment System testing data showed that only 23 percent of Pittsfield's third-grade Latino students scored "proficient" or higher in reading in 2013, compared to 35 percent for African-Americans and 49 percent for whites -- and 57 percent of students statewide.

However, in Grade 10, Latinos had closed the gap in English Language Arts testing in 2013 with whites in the city and statewide, with all groups more than 90 percent proficient.

Latino families with student-age children, according to the data, also are "highly mobile," Berardino said, with 21 percent changing schools during the year and 14 percent leaving the district entirely.

In Grade 10 math testing, Latinos, at 54 percent and African-Americans, at 30 percent, were behind the percentage of whites scoring proficient or higher -- 91 percent in the city or 80 percent statewide.

Graduation and dropout rates for students in the same four-year cohort showed Latinos with a 54 percent graduation rate and an 11 percent dropout rate, compared to 74 percent graduating and 11 percent dropping out for African-Americans, and 81 percent graduating and 8 percent dropping out for whites.

The numbers tend to fluctuate year to year for Latino students, Berardino said, but from 2006 through 2013, the four-year cohort dropout rate has fallen 36 percent. "Clearly, things are moving in the right direction," he said, but more needs to be done.

In terms of going on to college within 16 months of completing high school, only 44 percent of Latinos were enrolled, compared to 62 percent of African-Americans and 73 percent of whites and 74 percent for all high school grads in figures from 2011.

Strikingly, 91 percent of Latino students enrolled in two-year colleges, compared to 75 percent for African-Americans and 48 percent for whites. Community colleges are in particular "great resources" for Latino and other minority students, Berardino said.

UMass students Daniela Bravo, Aida Patencia and Chanel Fields gave a presentation on the importance of public transportation for Latino families, for access to employment and medical care and to avoid becoming isolated in rural Berkshire County.

They said the Safe Driving bill, now before the state Legislature with Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, as a co-sponsor, would help address the problem by allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a special driver's license.

The students said increased funding for bus and other public transportation and for the licensing legislation could prove key in whether the Latino community in the Pittsfield area can grow and thrive.

The presentation, "Latinos in Massachusetts: Focus on Pittsfield," was sponsored by BCC, Community Health Programs and the Multicultural BRIDGE program.

Other speakers included Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE, Bryan Ayars, CEO of Community Health Programs, and Father John Salatino of St. Mark's Church.

Bianchi welcomed the presenters to Pittsfield, saying Latino immigration in the city reminds him of his youth and Italian immigrant parents who came here, were assimilated and helped change Pittsfield.

"And now we have another immigrant generation. You are enriching our community in ways we are not even aware of yet," he said.

Bianchi said it is important for the city to understand the needs of its newest immigrants to help them succeed.

The Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latin Community Development and Public Policy, directed by Maria Idali Torres, who moderated the presentation Wednesday, was established in 1989 at UMass Boston.

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Vital statistics

Latinos in Pittsfield

Population: 2,250

Change 2000-10: 138.2%

Percentage in city: 5.1%

Median age: 19

Unemployed: 5.4%

In the labor force: 67.6%

Home ownership: 28.5%

High school dropout rate: 11%

Four-year graduation rate: 54%

Source: Gaston Institute at UMass-Amherst