Before a captivated audience last week, teachers and students at Edison Language Academy shared stories in English and Spanish. But their audience was nowhere near the Virginia Avenue elementary school.

That’s because the local readers were using computer video software to connect with peers around the world for Global Collaboration Day, which promotes international student interaction.

The activity was also part of the Santa Monica-Malibu school district’s celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, a federally designated period from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 during which communities across the country honor the “histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America,” according to the Library of Congress.

Launched as a weeklong observance in 1968 and expanded to a month 20 years later, the event has been recognized in a variety of ways in local schools.

This year’s celebrations in SMMUSD come after a controversial May festival at Will Rogers Learning Community, which some Hispanic parents criticized for downplaying its Cinco de Mayo roots.

The heritage month also follows the release of state test results that reveal wide performance gaps between Latino students and their peers, a hot topic as district officials work to improve equity in academic achievement.

On the new Smarter Balanced exams, the SMMUSD pass rate in English language was 48 percent among Hispanic students. That figure was 78 percent among white students and 83 percent for Asians.

Similar disparities were found in math, where just 33 percent of Latino test-takers in the district met or exceeded the standard. Those rates were 69 percent and 77 percent for white and Asian students in the district, respectively.

“Clearly, we must continue working to eliminate these gaps,” state education Supt. Tom Torlakson has said.

Local Board of Education member Maria Leon-Vazquez said it’s important for teachers to find “organic” ways to integrate cultural diversity into their lessons.

Leon-Vazquez, one of the first Latina members of the SMMUSD board, said student exposure to other cultures should occur not just during the heritage month but also throughout the rest of the school year.

John Muir Elementary School was scheduled to hold its sixth-annual celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month on Sept. 25.

“It’s an opportunity for the community to get together and share their culture,” said Irene Gonzalez-Castillo, the SMMUSD director of elementary curriculum and instruction.

At Will Rogers, students are researching Latinos who have made contributions in science, technology, engineering and math. They will share the knowledge with their peers, Gonzalez-Castillo said.

Roosevelt Elementary School students will read “A Chair for My Mother” as teachers infuse their lessons with an emphasis on character development, according to Gonzalez-Castillo. Children will also learn about Francisco Jimenez, a Mexican-American writer who teaches at Santa Clara University.

Students at Webster Elementary School in Malibu are conducting close readings of nonfiction articles, including one about a Cuban digital journalist and another about a Chicago school district’s culturally diverse music program.

At Santa Monica High School, facts about Hispanic history and heritage were relayed to students earlier this month, according to student board representative Mirai Miura.

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, or on Twitter.

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