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Leaders’ Group Sharpens Focus on Latino Students

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 21, 2012 3 min read
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Spurred by growth in the share of U.S. students who are Hispanic, a group of educators, business people, government officials, and health-care professionals met here this month to discuss ways to forge a more focused advocacy agenda for Latino students and English-language learners.

The Aug. 1 meeting was convened by the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, or ALAS, a nearly decade-old professional group seeking to raise its profile in the crowded landscape of education organizations.

Within as little as eight years, Hispanic children will constitute 25 percent of the nation’s public school enrollment, according to conference organizers. And in many cities—including some unexpected places—Latinos are already well more than half the public school system’s population.

One such place is Lancaster, Pa., best known for a large and vibrant Amish community that educates its children in its own schools.

More than 57 percent of the Lancaster district’s 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.

Such demographic trends—and their larger implications for the health of the American workforce and economy—led Mr. Rivera, along with José Torres, the superintendent of the 41,000-student U-46 district in Elgin, Ill., and 75 other educators, health-care providers, community organizers, and business leaders to brainstorm on how to make the educational success of Latinos an issue that the general public cares about and that policymakers want to address head on.

Making the Case

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

In his district, which is 50 percent Hispanic, English-speaking parents, he said, sometimes complain about receiving print and oral communications in English and Spanish.

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

Mr. 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 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, he said. “When you serve kids who don’t look like what some people think of as mainstream America,” Mr. Rivera 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.

Federal Efforts

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.

Spotlight on ELL Assessment and Teaching

ALAS was started in 2003 by a group of Latino school administrators who believed that 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 to more than 1,000 members now—and counts some of the nation’s most prominent Latino administrators among its ranks, including Andrés Alonso, the Baltimore schools chief, and Carlos Garcia, recently retired from the top job in San Francisco.

Membership in the Marlborough, Mass.-based group is not exclusive to Hispanic educators, said executive director Agustín Orci, a retired administrator from the Clark County, Nev., schools in Las Vegas. He said any educator or school administrator seeking to improve educational outcomes for Hispanic children may join. The first cohort from ALAS’ superintendent leadership academy, which prepares leaders for districts serving Hispanic students, English-language learners, and children living in poverty, graduated earlier this year.

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Leaders’ Group Sharpens Focus on Latino Students

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