The message of 63-year-old Joel Gomez, an associate professor of educational leadership at George Washington University, had an emotional quality to it that stood out from other presentations by Washington pundits who spoke yesterday at a session on high school reform at the annual convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens. I was there the day after the U.S. presidential contenders spoke at the meeting and the special table for the press near the registration desk had been removed. (Find Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s take on the candidates’ speeches here.)
Mr. Gomez relayed how when he was growing up in Brownsville, Texas, he and his peers used to ask a man, Don Eusebio, how many years he went to school. “Twelve years,” the man would answer. But when they followed up with the observation that he then must have graduated from high school, Don Eusebio answered, “No, I went to 12 years of 1st grade.”
I imagine that Don Eusebio was speaking somewhat rhetorically. But Mr. Gomez said that throughout his career as a teacher and researcher he’s continued to find that many Hispanics have not gotten much out of school. Many of his Hispanic peers didn’t graduate from high school, he said, and very few graduated from college, as he did.
After he graduated from the University of Texas and returned to Brownsville as a teacher, he recalled, “To my shock, my 6th graders couldn’t read. They couldn’t add and subtract.” He said they were smart, smooth-talking youngsters and he wondered, “How the heck did they get through six years of school and not learn anything?”
The issues that contributed to Hispanics’ spinning their wheels in school when he was young persist today, Mr. Gomez said. He urged educators to pay attention to school climate and language as keys to boosting Hispanic achievement. He’s an advocate of providing native-language instruction to students so they can keep up on school subjects with their native English-speaking peers while they are learning English.
“We will learn English. We can’t wait to learn about photosynthesis until we speak English or are fluent in English,” he said. Also, he said, schools need to create a climate where students don’t feel that in order to learn they have to be able to look and speak and gesture like the teacher.
Mr. Gomez told me after the meeting that while students who speak Spanish at home are able to learn only in English, instruction still has to be tailored in a way that takes into consideration how students use and acquire language. He reflected: “Do I want to go from being a Spanish-only speaker to an English-only speaker? No.”
He noted that while his parents and he and his siblings are bilingual, his family has always spoken Spanish at home. When he visits his parents in August, “we’re going to speak Spanish,” he said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.