Equity & Diversity

White House Takes Hispanic-Focused Back-to-School Tour To Springdale, Ark.

By Denisa R. Superville — September 08, 2014 6 min read
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The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics is expected to make stops in Springdale, Ark., this week on its back-to-school tour, hosting roundtables on immigrant integration, parent engagement, and early literacy with Superintendent Jim D. Rollins, education leaders, staff, students, and the larger Springdale community.

Loyal Education Week readers know that we’ve interviewed Rollins a number of times over the years about the district’s strategic efforts to reach out to English-language learners and their families, most recently for our demographic package on the racial transformation of the American public school student population. (Public schools are expected to become majority nonwhite in the 2014-15 school year).

You can listen to a portion of Rollins’ “Teach Them All” interview here, in which he talks about the district’s proactive approach to teaching all students, regardless of their backgrounds, when the district was faced with an influx of immigrant students, mainly from Latin America and the Marshall Islands, in the mid-1990s.

Hispanics make up more than 43 percent of the student body in Springdale, but the district has a sizable number of students from the Marshall Islands. The district’s students speak nearly 40 languages at home, besides English.

The White House’s 2014 back-to-school tour will make five stops beginning on Monday in three counties: Benton and Washington in Arkansas and Gwinnett in Georgia.

The stops are in counties that have seen Hispanic student population growth of more than 150 percent since 2000, according to the Education Department. Gwinnett County Public Schools, for example, is majority nonwhite.

“This year’s tour will provide us with a great opportunity to advance President Obama’s education agenda and increase the participation of the Hispanic community in the U.S. Department of Education’s programs,” said Alejandra Ceja, the executive director of White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanics—or WHIEEH—said in a statement announcing the tour.

“Our key priority is to increase Hispanic education attainment levels, thereby contributing to the president’s 2020 goal—to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates by the year 2020,” Ceja continued. “We want to ensure that all Hispanics receive a complete and competitive education that prepares them for college, a career, and productive and satisfying lives. A key pathway for our efforts lies in the new and emerging communities that have experienced some of the largest Hispanic population growth over the last decade.”

The White House is conducting the tour in conjunction with the Education Department’s Partners in Progress back-to-school bus tour, which is highlighting the administration’s education agenda. That tour also starts on Monday in Atlanta, and swings through the Southeast, making stops in Alabama and Tennessee. Our Lauren Camera will get on the bus on Tuesday as it wends its way through Tennessee. Follow her journey this week on the Politics-K-12 blog.

The Hispanic-focused tour will emphasize the administration’s Preschool for All program, college affordability, and a redesign of the American high school. Officials will shine a spotlight on successful programs on immigration integration, parent literacy, and youth and parental engagement at the respective schools along the way.

Roundtables in Springdale on Monday will showcase the education and support infrastructure the district has built to engage the Latino and immigrant community, focusing on Hispanic educational achievement and immigration integration. Arkansas’ Education Commissioner Tony Wood is expected to be present, along with Rollins; Doug Sprouse, Springdale’s mayor; Nicolas Perilla, executive director of the Cisneros Center for New Americans; and Sharon Darling, president and founder of the National Center for Family Literacy.

On Tuesday, there will be two roundtables, one on early learning and another on adult literacy/education, early learning, and immigrant integration. And on Wednesday, they will discuss Springdale’s “New Arrival Program.”

The tour will make its final stop on Wednesday at Berkmar High School in Gwinnett County, Ga., with a town hall with discussion on Hispanic educational achievement, mentoring, and financial aid.

Springdale was one of five districts to win a Race to the Top grant in 2013. The district won $25.9 million, which it planned to use to expand career academies, require 9th graders to take online courses, and improve data systems.

The district has won plaudits over the years for its immigrant engagement efforts. One such effort with the Toyota Family Literacy Program brought parents into the schools to learn alongside their children.

Rollins said the program helped in two ways: it taught the parents English and it also made them major stakeholders in their school community and in their children’s education.

Here he explains:

“Those families would come to the schools four days a week, four hours a day, and they would learn right along with their children. In addition to that, there would be adult education classes and family survival skills classes. That program today is kind of a model for the nation, and we’ve grown from those initial three schools to 13 schools today. We’re continuing to try to lay the foundation for that family literacy initiative in all 30 of our schools... We’ve got additional work to do, but I am so appreciative of the principals, the teachers, who extended themselves, who changed their delivery system so that it can include ELL moms and dads. And when that happens, magical things come alongside: That gap disappears; your ELL families who might have been struggling with that transition, through efforts like this now become more and more comfortable. They become enormous advocates for their schools and their teachers and that just boosts the entire educational experience for these children.”

On the importance of including immigrant families in their children’s learning:

“If moms and dads from all backgrounds are interested in school and share that interest with their kids and maybe demonstrate it through being involved in parent-teacher organizations or booster clubs or just coming to school to see the band or choir perform or to visit an arts fair or whatever the situation might be, if those parents demonstrate to their kids that school is important, kids get that message. They get it very clearly. And when children understand that moms and dads care about how they do in school, they do better... But with the insecurities that come along with immigration and transition from one region of the world to another, that kind of support system is even more powerful. We graduate now approximately 300 moms and dads every year from our family-literacy program. We bring them to a major auditorium in the district. There is a graduation experience, similar to what our high school graduates have. These individuals are recognized individually, given a certificate or diploma. Pictures are taken for them. It’s a celebratory event. And it just adds to this success orientation for out ELL families. “

On the continued engagement of parents who’ve graduated from the program:

“They become some of the strongest advocates for our teachers and our schools because they know full well that this was not a requirement—this was done because we believed in their children, we believed in the importance of them being involved with the school, because they knew that we understood partnerships between moms and dads and teachers and kids are at the heart of continuous learning. And so they give back in every way that they can. They may have special dinners at the school for the staff, where the families prepare the meals and bring them and say ‘thank you’ in a variety of ways. It has been an extremely growth-promoting process; and I think, to a great degree, the success that we’ve seen in terms of student learning can be tied to really the continued professional growth of our staff, continuous learning, capacity building, if you will, and then, secondly, building this relationship with families, so that it’s clearly understood we’re all in this; and by ‘in this,’ of course, I mean educating their children.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.