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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
4th grader Brittany Irra works on multiplication with Latinos in Action member Oliver Balanzar at East Midvale Elementary School on Wednesday, November 2, 2011.

MIDVALE — Educators have long expressed concern about achievement gaps drawn along racial and socioeconomic lines, but they're not the only ones who notice. Students themselves are troubled by the disparity between white and Hispanic student performance and are trying to turn things around.

"I felt that a lot of Latinos were falling behind in graduating and in academics. And I wanted to be one of those people that can be proud to be Latino and proud to be getting good grades," said Hillcrest High senior Carmen Arredondo.

Arredondo mentors second-grade students at East Midvale Elementary twice a week through Latinos in Action, a leadership group focused on academic, cultural and community involvement. The program is in place at more than 50 high schools and junior highs around the state.

"I just wanted to be an example that you can be Latino and you can get good grades and go to college and you can have a good job," she said.

According to the Nation's Report Card released Tuesday, fourth- and eighth-grade Hispanic students in Utah score behind their white peers in reading and math, and in some cases, the achievement gap has widened over the past 15 years. The report showed white students in Utah persistently outpace the national average in each subject while Hispanic students performed below.

Language barriers play a big role in the disparity in Utah, educators say, but students in Latinos in Action want to help young people navigate unfamiliar words and concepts while also showing them how being bilingual is a huge asset and talent.

Language obstacles are amplified when students don't feel like they can relate to their teachers in other ways, said Analis Ruiz, with the Canyons office of student advocacy and access.

"An important strategy in teaching is building on the student's background knowledge. If teachers don't know that, then that's a missing piece that is so important for our students to identify with," she said.

Steven Guzman, president of Hillcrest's chapter of Latinos in Action, said one of the biggest hurdles to helping Latino students achieve are persistent stereotypes.

"People just kind of accept the stereotype," Guzman said. "They just think, 'Oh this is what society thinks of us, so we're just going to accept it and be dropouts.' "

He's hopeful that he might be able to get students thinking about their future and their potential from an early age, and in turn, close some of those achievement gaps.

"Especially if the kid is a Latino kid, he can see that I'm doing something good," he said.

Jackie Peterson, the group adviser at Hillcrest High, has noticed how high schoolers turn their academic lives around once they see their peers focused on the same thing. She said she's seen students who were failing many of their classes turn into straight-A students with college aspirations.

"Because they're around other people who want to do well in school … it changes them completely," she said. "I've seen it change their families."

That success is also true for the students on the receiving end of the mentoring program.

"It's a great resource for us," said East Midvale Vice Principal Rebecca Dallimore.

Dallimore said she's tried to implement some aspects of the program at her own school, by giving students who may not be fluent in English greater responsibilities as bus monitors, as well as having the older elementary students mentor the younger students.

"You give them some responsibility and a voice and something to do and they just eat it up," she said.

Ruiz said she's hopeful Latinos in Action and programs like it will provide short-term and long-term solutions to addressing achievement gaps. Canyons has hired two former members of the group who are now in college to be teachers assistants.

"We do need more role models in the classroom. We do need more educators who understand their cultural and linguistic backgrounds," she said. "We're hoping that they come back into the education field and we can perpetuate that culture."

Email: mfarmer@desnews.com Twitter: mollyfarmer