Education Opinion

Scattered Challenges, Singular Solutions: The New Latino Diaspora

The surging Hispanic and Latino population across the country has brought new education challenges and opportunities to rural and small town America
By Stanton Wortham, Katherine Clonan-Roy, Holly Link, Carlos Martinez & Phi Delta Kappan — March 29, 2013 13 min read
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It’s the first day of school, and Christine eagerly awaits her students. Although she is a veteran kindergarten teacher in the Marshall School District, she has only recently begun to teach students of Mexican heritage. This year, the number of Spanish speakers in her class is at a record high, with about 75% of her students from Spanish-speaking households. When the school doors open, a few bilingual staff members wait along the kindergarten hall to greet families, and parents accompany their children into the classrooms. As parents say good-bye, Christine does not disturb Maite, a young Mexican girl with her head buried in her mother’s lap, until morning recess. Then she calls in the guidance counselor and an interpreter and learns Maite’s story. Several months earlier, Gloria and her three children arrived from Mexico to join her husband, who was living and working in Marshall. At the border, Maite and her older sister were forcibly separated from their mother and brother for six weeks when the “coyotero” they paid to help them enter the U.S. demanded more money. The family was reunited once these new demands were met, and Gloria and her children finally arrived in Marshall. In light of Maite’s resulting separation anxiety and despite a collaborative effort to transition her into kindergarten, a week later all agreed that she would benefit from another year at home. Maite spends her days helping her mother with housekeeping, cooking, and caring for her newborn brother and will return to kindergarten the next fall.

Like Maite, many Spanish-speaking students begin school after facing serious challenges on their journey to the U.S., and many acquire skills in house-hold tasks and child care that English-speaking children have yet to learn. Though these experiences and skills often go unnoticed in U.S. schools, they are becoming salient in today’s classrooms, which are being populated by increasing numbers of students from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds. Educators face challenges in meeting these students’ needs. But they also can draw on the skills and knowledge such students bring from home.

Maite lives in Marshall, a suburban town of about 35,000 in the northeastern U.S. that has only recently become home to large numbers of Latinos, most of them Mexican. In 1990, Marshall had about 100 residents of Mexican origin; by 2010, their numbers had grown to at least 8,000. The rapid growth has drastically changed student demographics in Marshall’s schools, catapulting the Latino population from 3% to 28%. Currently, 11% of the district’s students are classified as English language learners (ELL), and 68% are low-income. At Maite’s school, two-thirds of the students are Spanish speakers and 90% of students qualify for subsidized school lunches.

Such rapid demographic changes have been seen across the country, especially in areas that are part of the New Latino Diaspora (NLD)—places that have not traditionally been home to Latinos and where educators must manage language barriers, find ways to support a new population, and work with families and students to fully engage them in schooling. At the same time, precisely because NLD schools typically don’t have structures to support such students, educators can be flexible and develop innovative ways to meet the challenges.

The New Latino Diaspora

From 2000 to 2010, the U.S. Latino population grew from 35.2 million to 50.7 million, from 12.5% of the U.S. population to 16.4% (Pew Hispanic Center, 2010). Increasing numbers of Latinos have settled in NLD locations like Marshall, away from traditional Latino settlements in Florida, the Southwest, and major cities.

Figure 1 illustrates the Latino population’s growth in the U.S. by county over the past decade. Counties with the fastest rates of Hispanic population growth (over 300%) were in regions without a traditional Latino presence, including Georgia, South Dakota, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. Changes in certain industries, such as agriculture, construction, landscaping, manufacturing, and meat processing, are driving Latino immigrants to new areas (Hamann & Harklau, 2010). Maite’s father and a number of his nephews came to Marshall to find work in construction and landscaping. Maite’s story also illustrates a national shift in Latino migration: What was once a male-dominated, seasonal migration is now family-dominated, and many families are settling permanently in the South, the Midwest, and the Northeast. Compared to areas of traditional Latino settlement, NLD regions are characterized by Latinos who are younger, more often speak Spanish as a first language, and more often struggle with English.

Many families in the NLD, including in Marshall, can be described as mixed-status, with both undocumented and documented members. They face challenges in navigating citizenship or residency processes, traveling to and from their country of origin, and deciphering the policies and procedures in local U.S. social services and schools.

Education Experiences

Across the country, Latino students are graduating from high school and college at rates lower than their white, black, and Asian peers, and Latino young adults continue to be the major group least likely to earn a bachelor’s degree (Pew Hispanic Center, 2010; Fry, 2011). We know less about school completion in the NLD, and an important question remains: Are NLD Latinos experiencing the same educational fate as those in areas of traditional Latino settlement?

In recent years, researchers have begun to answer this question by studying the educational experiences of educators, students, and families in NLD regions. One of the biggest problems that NLD communities and schools face is the lack of established systems to meet the new Latino population’s needs. Often, teachers are untrained in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) and have little prior exposure to Latino culture. ESL programs are experimental, and communication between home and school is hindered by a lack of bilingual staff (Hamann & Harklau, 2010). Latino students in NLD schools are often placed in makeshift classroom spaces and have teachers with fewer credentials (Wortham, Hamann, & Murillo, 2002). In kindergarten, Maite’s ESL instruction was led by a paraprofessional with no ESL credentials and took place at a table in a crowded hallway. Pulling English learners out of content classes for ESL work also disrupts learning within content classes. At the same time, Marshall teachers have struggled to negotiate students’ language use in their classrooms and often have felt uncomfortable with students’ use of Spanish.

Despite these daunting challenges, research indicates that strategies for working with Latino students in NLD communities like Marshall are more varied and flexible than in areas of traditional Latino settlement. Limited experience with Latino students in the NLD communities has left educators open to discovering the needs of each child, not relying as heavily on preconceptions or stereotypes as is more often the case in areas with a traditional Latino presence. Maite’s school experiences illustrate how Marshall has responded to such challenges and opportunities.

Navigating Language Use in the Elementary Mainstream Classroom

When Maite returns to kindergarten the next year, Christine is her teacher. She accepts the use of Spanish among her students, incorporates Spanish words and phrases into class routines, and believes students will learn English when they’re ready. But she worries about Spanish speakers who are silent in class. As Maite and many of her classmates rapidly learn English, her English-speaking peers also begin to pick up words and phrases in Spanish. Christine isn’t sure what to make of this, and she wishes she had more access to information about second-language learning. She relies on two ESL teachers to work with Maite and other ELL students for 15 minutes each day, but she has no time in her hectic workday to collaborate with them and worries that Maite may be missing important academic content when she is pulled out of class.

Teachers in NLD schools must often negotiate language barriers and language use in the classroom. Mainstream teachers struggle to understand ELL students’ needs, and they need strategies to serve these students. Research has shown that accepting or using the home language in school can support academic achievement (Goldenberg, 2008). English learners must learn academic English, but schools should also build on the resources of immigrants and encourage use of the home language to enrich these children’s academic achievement. Christine’s experience—not having direct access to information about second-language learning or time to meet with ESL support staff—is not uncommon in schools with new immigrant populations. Because the school’s ESL program was new, solid structures to support teachers, such as time to collaborate with ESL teachers or professional development sessions targeting ESL strategies, were not yet in place. As Christine found, accommodating her Latino students without solid systems was challenging. However, she was able to create new ways to support new students and to engage with Latino families.

Engaging and Communicating With Spanish-Speaking Families

Christine’s worries about communicating with Spanish-speaking families are amplified during parent-teacher conferences. She finds it nearly impossible to get through all of the information she wants to share in the 15 minutes allotted to each conference, especially when she needs to work through an interpreter. At Maite’s conference, Christine has a copy of the report card and a number of other translated materials to show Gloria. However, she does not anticipate that Gloria has no formal schooling and does not read or write in any language. Christine improvises by talking through the materials and showing Maite’s older sister some of the literacy and math activities she wants Maite to practice at home. Through most of the conference, Gloria sits rigid and silent, nodding slightly and responding “sí, maestra” (yes, teacher) after each pause in interpretation, until Christine mentions Maite’s behavior in class. Now Gloria grows animated, offering numerous examples of Maite’s behavior at home and requesting that Christine call her if she ever has any concern about her daughter’s classroom conduct.

Christine’s challenges in communicating with families represent a pressing issue in NLD schools: Educators struggle to find interpreters and bilingual staff and to introduce immigrant families to school policies and procedures. As Christine found, it’s hard to make a connection with Latino parents, navigate the language barrier, and explain school policies and procedures in a 15-minute conference. Christine was able to connect most directly with Gloria in discussing Maite’s behavior. For many Latino parents, including Gloria, the concept of educación—which centrally includes moral education as distinguished from content-based formal education—is essential. Christine’s conference experience with Gloria not only suggests that teachers should notice and value Latino parents’ concerns about moral development, but it also shows that valuing parent perspectives is crucial for engaging families in schooling. Many Latino parents in the NLD attended school in Mexico and need information about American school policies and procedures, including how grades, report cards, and evaluations work. It helps to introduce these policies and procedures early in their children’s schooling, but educators should also schedule regular forums to discuss them. When Maite reached 1st grade, her family was able to take part in a new program that provided such a forum—a weekly, afterschool, family homework club run by teachers and developed in collaboration with a local university. Through this program, teachers engaged students and families in a relaxed and supportive environment.

Engaging and Supporting Spanish-Speaking Students

As Maite moves through 1st and 2nd grades, her mother continues to communicate with her teachers about Maite’s “educación,” along with the development of her math and reading skills. Just into Maite’s 3rd-grade year, her teacher, Dana, invites her to join the extracurricular Newspaper Club, which meets during Dana’s prep time. As a journalist in the club, Maite must complete additional assignments, such as writing up interviews at home and summarizing research on article topics. After a month, Maite decides to leave the club because she is overwhelmed by the extra work and uncertain of her writing skills, and her two older siblings can no longer help her because they have begun working at the local mall. Dana encourages Maite to stay in the club and supports her by checking in with her frequently, helping her at school with the writing assignments, and allowing her short periods of time during the school day to work on them. She also sparks Maite’s interest in the club by placing her on the Spanish translation team, a small group of students who translate articles for the publication of a Spanish-language version of the newspaper. Maite learns to manage the extra work and decides she will continue as a journalist in 4th grade.

Rather than agree with Maite that her position as journalist was unmanageable, Dana worked closely with her so she could remain in the club. At the same time, she built on Maite’s strength as a bilingual student and motivated her by finding a way for her to develop biliteracy at school. Making personal connections with students improves student engagement and success, and developing biliteracy has a number of benefits. Drawing on the resources students bring from home, including their translation skills, can motivate and push them to take on new academic endeavors. Teacher-student relationships built around trust, partnership, and high expectations can help students from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds succeed.


The challenges and opportunities that Maite, her teachers, and her family face are occurring in NLD schools across the country. Maite’s story illustrates how educators in the NLD can draw on the skills and knowledge that these students bring from home to overcome language barriers and engage families to foster student success. Christine enriches Maite’s academic achievement by encouraging the use of her home language and engages parents by respecting their concerns for moral development and clearly explaining American school procedures. Dana capitalizes on Maite’s bilingual skills, motivating her to participate in academic and extracurricular activities and establishing teacher-student relationships built around trust, partnership, and high expectations. In addition to the practices that Maite’s story highlights, educators in Marshall also have built relationships with Spanish-speaking community members and university students to help with translation, and they have connected with Latino community organizations to build a network of support for Latino students and families. This kind of collaboration among educators, families, and students empowers teachers to transform challenges into opportunities, helps students like Maite embark on promising academic trajectories, and engages parents to support the school’s efforts.


  • Goldenberg, C. (2008, Summer). Teaching English language learners: What the research does - and does not - say. American Educator, 32(2), 8-44.
  • Hamann, E.T. & Harklau, L. (2010). Education in the New Latino Diaspora. In E.G. Murillio Jr. (Ed.), Handbook of Latinos and Education (pp. 157-169). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Pew Hispanic Center. (2010). Statistical portrait of Hispanics in the United States. Washington, DC: Author. www.pewhispanic. org/2012/02/21/statistical-portrait-of-hispanics-in-the-united-states-2010/
  • Fry, R. (2011). Hispanic college enrollment spikes, narrowing gaps with other groups. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.
  • Wortham, S., Hamann, E.T., & Murillo Jr., E.G. (Eds.). (2002). Education in the New Latino Diaspora: Policy and the politics of identity. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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