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Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as Latino Advocates Help New Members Prepare For School Board Roles

Latino Advocates Help New Members Prepare for School Board Roles

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Pat Campos reported for “boot camp” here recently with more than two dozen other newly elected Latino school board members from across the country. They were treated to crash courses on school finance, conflicts with superintendents, and savvy media relations.

Organized by the Washington-based National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the three-day training session at Gallaudet University was aimed at state representatives, municipal officials, and 22 school board members. They took notes, sat in on mock TV interviews, and asked veteran mentors tough questions about what to expect in their new positions.

Ms. Campos, who was elected to the school board in the 23,000-student United Independent School District in the border town of Laredo, Texas, said she was motivated to run for office because of her experiences as a case management director in the juvenile-justice system.

“Ninety-eight percent of the kids I see can’t read or write,” she said. “They’re not functioning at grade level. The education system is failing these children.”

Problems to Tackle

Latinos are the nation’s fastest-growing minority group, and officials here said increasing their representation on school boards is a critical step in better addressing the high dropout rates and poor academic performance among many Hispanic students.

Just last month, a federal report showed that Hispanic students continue to drop out of high school at a much higher rate than that of non-Hispanic whites. ("Report: Higher Hispanic Dropout Rate Persists," Nov. 17, 2004.)

The United States has more than 6,000 Latino elected officials at all levels of government, 1,500 of whom are school board members, according to Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ Educational Fund.

“Education is so important for Latinos,” Mr. Vargas said in an interview. “It’s our No. 1 issue, and for many folks it’s the first rung on the political ladder.”

The association’s educational fund conducts training workshops around the country for Latino officials on a host of issues, ranging from public health to encouraging parental involvement in schools.

While the group doesn’t actively recruit Latinos to run for school boards, it does seek to raise awareness about the importance of increasing the visibility of Latinos in positions of educational leadership.

‘Welcome Aboard’

Essau Ruiz Herrera, the school board president in the 14,400-student Alum Rock Union Elementary School District in San Jose, Calif., had a straightforward message for the new school board members assembled for an afternoon workshop on understanding the dynamics of board governance.

“Welcome aboard; now buy yourself a helmet,” the board veteran of 19 years said.

“You’re in charge now. You got elected,” he continued. “You can make a difference by opening your mouth. You’re going to have some terrible times, and you will ask yourself why you got involved. You got involved because you can make a difference.”

For years, Mr. Herrera said, Latinos were not represented in leadership positions in school districts, but those days have changed.

“It’s our turn now,” he said. “Now it’s our fault if our kids don’t succeed. No more excuses, folks. We’re at the table now.”

Panfilo Contreras, the executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, who led the workshop with Mr. Herrera, told the group’s members they would have to work extra hard to be respected as leaders.

“Nobody is going to ask you to get involved,” he said. “You have to ask the questions, and you have to be better to be equal.”

Mr. Contreras, who introduced himself as a “recovering school board member,” became the first Latino elected to the board of the Flowing Wells Unified School District in Tucson in the 1980s. He faced overt hostility as a candidate because of his ethnicity, he said.

Today, when Latinos are elected, they too are seen as the “Latino” candidate, he said. But it’s essential to persuade other board members that Latino issues are issues all students and families care about, he advised.

“You don’t want to be labeled as the ‘Latino representative,’ ’’ Mr. Contreras said. “School board members, no matter what they look like, are there to help kids.”

But Art Murillo, who was elected to the board of the 55,000-student Aldine Independent School District in Aldine, Texas, in May, said that while he doesn’t want to be labeled as one of two Latino school board members on the seven-member board, he sees his background as an advantage.

“I feel like we need to be sitting at the table as Hispanics,” he said. “I understand the issues of the Hispanic community.”

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Page 9

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