Public and Private Leaders Pledge Advocacy for Latinos, ELLs

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 10, 2012 4 min read
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Within as few as eight years, Hispanic children will comprise 25 percent of the nation’s public school enrollment. And in many, many cities—including places that you wouldn’t naturally assume—Latinos are already well more than half of the public school system’s population.

Lancaster, Penn., best known for a large and vibrant Amish community, is one such place.

There, more than 57 percent of 11,000 students are Hispanic, many of them of Puerto Rican descent, according to Pedro Rivera, the superintendent, who jokes that he is “Amishrican.” More than 20 percent of the district’s students are English-language learners. There are many other Pennsylvania school systems with sizable Latino and ELL enrollment—Philadelphia and Reading, to name a few others—but Rivera says he is the only Hispanic chief in a state with 500 school districts.

Those sheer demographics—and their larger implications for the health of the American workforce and economy—brought together a group of educators, business people, government officials and health-care professionals in Washington this week to discuss ways to forge a more-focused advocacy agenda for Latino students and English-language learners. The meeting was convened by the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, or ALAS, a nearly decade-old professional association seeking to raise its profile in the crowded landscape of education organizations.

Rivera, along with José Torres, the superintendent of the 41,000-student U-46 district in Elgin, Ill.—that state’s second largest after Chicago—were joined by about 75 other educators, health-care providers, community organizers, and business leaders from across the country to brainstorm on how to make the educational success of Latinos an issue that the public at large cares about and that policymakers want to address head on.

Economic necessity and the future needs of the labor force, they agreed, has to be the primary frame through which they pitch ideas, seek strategies, lobby for funding, and advocate for new policies. As leaders, Torres said, they also have to be able to stand up to difficult political pressure that can undermine efforts to help Latino students succeed.

In his district, which is 50 percent Hispanic, English-speaking parents sometimes complain about the bilingual written and oral communications they receive, which are delivered in English and Spanish.

“We don’t have to succumb to this,” Torres said. “We have to have a moral fiber and do what’s right.”

Rivera said he has dealt with resistance in Lancaster to the creation of two-way, dual-language programs that blend native Spanish-speakers with native English-speakers in the same classrooms to learn all their academic content in both languages. Critics said it was too expensive and a waste of resources to teach students Spanish in an English-speaking nation. There were similar criticisms when the district began operating health clinics in a few schools, he said.

“When you serve kids who don’t look like what some people think of as mainstream America,” he said, “it becomes a cost, not an investment.”

Much conversation centered around the need for Latino educators and leaders to share their personal stories more often with students to demonstrate that success is attainable no matter how humble their beginnings.

The group also heard from Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Department of Education, who highlighted a list of policies that she said had directly benefited Latino students. One-third of the nation’s Hispanic K-12 students are in states that won a federal Race to the Top grant, she said. And roughly 180,000 Latinos are attending the more than 800 low-performing schools that are set to receive their third straight year of federal school improvement grant money to undergo dramatic turnaround.

ALAS got started in 2003 by a group of Latino school administrators who felt issues most critical to their work—such as the achievement of English-language learners—weren’t getting the level of attention they needed. Since then, the organization has steadily grown—with more than 1,000 members now—and counts some of the nation’s most prominent Latino administrators among its leadership ranks. Andrés Alonso, the chief of Baltimore’s schools is one; Carlos Garcia, who recently retired from the top job in San Francisco, is another.

Membership in the group is by no means exclusive to Hispanic educators, said Agustín Orci, the executive director for ALAS, who is a retired administrator in the Clark County, Nev., schools in Las Vegas. Ideally, Orci said, any educator or school administrator who wants to be part of an effort to improve overall educational outcomes for Hispanic children would join the group.

Earlier this year, ALAS graduated its first cohort from its superintendent leadership academy, which focuses on developing specialized leadership for districts which serve large numbers of Hispanic children, English-language learners, and students living in poverty.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.