Interview: Model Behavior

February 01, 2002 5 min read
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Educator Anthony Colón has a plan for helping Latino students achieve—give them a shot in charter schools.

In the game of school, Latino children are losers—their test scores lag behind their non-Hispanic peers, and they drop out of high school four times more often than white kids. This is a serious problem for the nation’s educators: By 2025, one-fourth of all elementary school students will be Latino. So, what can be done to help this growing minority?

Anthony Colón is betting that the answer is visible on the U.S. map hanging in his office at the National Council of La Raza, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans. Colón, vice president of the group’s education programs, has painstakingly inserted little flags in places where there are charter schools devoted to Latino kids.

He’s keeping track of the growing number of institutions sponsored by NCLR’s ambitious new Charter School Development Initiative, an effort to establish some 50 small schools focused on Hispanic kids over the next five years. The organization estimates that the endeavor will cost nearly $30 million (some of which will come from funders such as the Gates Foundation) and may affect up to 25,000 students each year. NCLR has already begun sharing the wealth, issuing 20 grants totaling $1.9 million to schools in Latino communities across the country. We recently spoke to Colón, a former teacher and New York City schools administrator, about NCLR’s plan.

Q: Why did the National Council of La Raza decide to launch the Charter School Development Initiative?

A: We know lots about Latino children. It would be great to be able to walk into a [public school] and say: “Hey. Things are not so good for Latino kids. We think we have some ideas. We would love for you to work with us.” It just doesn’t happen.

The charter school movement is an opportunity for us to show that, in order to do better by Latino children, there are certain things that you must look at unequivocally. Professional-development programs must talk about teachers acquiring strategies that will help them deal with English-anguage learners and give them some cultural background about the kids they’re working with. We’re saying it has to be a comprehensive approach to dealing with the Latino community.

We want to be able to show that we can provide quality schools for our kids, and we want them to become model schools and perhaps be replicated in other areas. We want to be in the driver’s seat, to have more than just a voice at the table. It’s not going to supplant the public school system. No matter what happens in this movement, 85 percent of our kids, at least, will remain in the public school system.

Q: Isn’t grouping Latino kids together—or for that matter, students from any one ethnic group—harmful to their social and academic development when they have to learn to succeed in a diverse society?

A: The way you’ve framed it, I would say yes. But remember, these schools reflect the community. If you go into any one of the public schools where we have charter schools, you’re going to see exactly the same percentages of [Latino] children. We feel that community-based schools will offer lots more to children because they’re tied into other services. The other thing is, they’re open to anyone who wants to come to the school; we don’t discourage that. I don’t think that having children from the same ethnic group is harmful, unless it’s a forced kind of a thing, and this certainly isn’t forced.

Q: Have you had any personal experiences with charter schools that make you a fan of the model?

A: [In 1998, in Oakland, California] I became the principal of a charter school—99.9 percent Mexican. We were housed in portables in the middle of a warehouse area. Lunch was [delivered in] an ice cream truck. At 10 o’clock, one of the local parents would come in with coolers, and that was the snack.

There was lots of flexibility. You didn’t need to worry about all the constraints you normally have to worry about in traditional schools. You were able to think out of the box and do different things. So that was really great.

In all my years of being a teacher- administrator, it was so super-difficult to get parents involved. You know, you’d call meetings, and you’d get 10 percent. At this school, you never had less than 70 to 80 percent attendance at a meeting. At one point, we needed space. It was going to cost us a lot of money and create a problem for us. The parents said, “We’ll dig the trenches.” They did that. There was ownership because they were part of the decisionmaking; they were part of what happened to their kids.

Q: How does the NCLR charter school program work?

A: Part of the initiative is grant making. We have four different types of grants over the course of four years. Theoretically, if all the stars are aligned, and you do all the right things, you can get up to $400,000, which is significant for a startup school. There are no guarantees that, because you get a planning grant, you’re going to get the next one. However, unlike banks and other places, if you send in an application, and we think there’s potential there but it’s just not ready to go, we’d work with you.

Another part is technical assistance. We’re creating clusters around the country of schools that come together and, with us, do lots of training. We don’t want to build an empire and be in charge of it. What we really want to do is to create schools that are independently sustainable.

Q: The National Council of La Raza supports bilingual education. Are your affiliated charter schools required to teach in two languages?

A: From my perspective, bilingual education is a sound educational approach. But the program is only as good as it’s implemented. If you hire a person who speaks a little English and is monolingual Spanish—that’s not bilingual education. We don’t say, “You must have a bilingual program.” We say: “You must have a program that addresses the needs of English-language learners. Tell us what it is.”

Q: What are things teachers can do that you believe will improve Latino students’ performance?

A: One of them is a mind-set that, just because children are not able to function immediately in your class, it doesn’t mean that they can’t learn. Teachers have to really be in tune to where the kids come from: Are the language issues interfering with learning? Are there cultural factors that are created by this classroom you’re in that are impacting how these children learn? Are the materials relevant—do they reflect the children’s experience? The teachers’ repertoire of how to assess children is very important.

Q: How do you see this program developing over the long term?

A: This is an incubator. Some of [the charter schools] will succeed, and some of them won’t. But, hey, colleagues, keep an eye on us. Keep us straight, keep us accountable, learn from our mistakes, and learn from our best practices.

—Samantha Stainburn


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