This is the second in a three-part series of conversations with Latino educators and information technology experts. Read it first part here.
While Latino children make up a growing proportion of public school students in the United States, they also face unique challenges.
Education researchers now know that Latino students were dealt a disproportionate blow to their learning by the coronavirus pandemic. A frustrating combination of factors retains underrepresented Latino students in science, technology, and math classes. Undocumented students – many from Mexico and Central America – see their college dreams disappear that legal protections for them remain in limbo.
Latinos who work in education are ready for changeand they say their culture already contains cherished values like community building and generosity that are needed to improve the education of their students.
EdSurge recently posed a question to a panel of three educators and an edtech CEO: What is the greatest strength that Latinos can harness to transform public education?
strength in numbers
For Rocío Raña, CEO of edtech, who co-founded a company that assesses the reading skills of bilingual children, the answer is obvious.
“I’m based in New York, so I know Latinos make up 40% of the student population,” she says of the schools there. “With numbers comes strength, and we need to realize that numbers are powerful.”
Persevere in difficult times
While other American communities might have stories of coming to the United States far into their past, Latinos are unique in that many students and teachers are the children or grandchildren of immigrants – or the immigrants themselves.
Cindy Noriega, a high school teacher in California, says the culture of persistence reveals the strength of Latinos at large. His own parents immigrated from Mexico when they were still teenagers. Her father started working in construction when she was 14, and her mother worked in what Noriega describes as a sweatshop when she was 15.
“It wasn’t easy stuff, but it taught them and they kept persevering so they could finally buy a house, have a better life, and give my sister and me a better life,” Noriega says.
She remembers as a child sitting on the stairs of the houses her mother cleaned as a maid and understanding the importance of a strong work ethic.
“I didn’t end up building houses or cleaning houses, but I applied that perseverance when I was at UCLA at two in the morning trying to teach myself abstract algebra,” Noriega says, “and there was no one else around to teach it.”
This level of perseverance is possible for anyone, regardless of ethnicity, she explains, but Latino students in particular need to hear it. Noriega was keen to encourage Latino students at her school to take computer classes.
As soon as they’re faced with a tough math problem, Noriega says his Latino students are quick to say they can’t do it because they just don’t have the smarts. This is a misconception that needs to be dispelled, she adds.
“I really believe it’s in our DNA as Latinos to be persistent, to keep pushing, and not to give up, especially in those areas of math and computer science,” she says. “I know they persevere because I know their stories. I know where they come from. I know their parents taught them perseverance. You just have to remind them that they are capable of this perseverance.
A community based on connection
One of the greatest strengths Latinos can bring to education is their sense of community, says Edward Gonzalez, director of open educational resources for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools in California.
It’s usually a culture of caring and inclusiveness, he develops, that uplifts everyone.
“I’ve seen that when we build, we build with everyone in this community, which means we always bring people,” Gonzalez says, “whether it’s offering people to come to the party that’s down the street or inviting people to play a pick-up game. Or telling them, ‘Hey, get a plate with you.’ The biggest contribution we have to make is that we always build with everyone in our neighborhood.”
The desire to be seen
Antonio Vigil may be the director of innovative classroom technology at Aurora Public Schools in Colorado, but many of his ideas for improving education for Latino students are about building human connections.
Latinos bring that to the table with the value they place on “humility, our generosity and our undeniable sense of connectedness,” he says.
“No matter where we go, we always make sure people are taken care of. We always ensure that there is a sense of belonging. We always make sure to give,” says Vigil.
And in that, he sees opposing forces between how Latinos function in their lives and how the education system as a whole prioritizes improvements for individual students.
“Why we haven’t necessarily achieved the success we want, especially academically,” he explains, “is because we’re working against a collective culture.”
Instead, Vigil says Latino educators work in a mainstream society “that says we are individual entities and we are for ourselves. And it’s about accumulating materials. It is about accumulating goods and products, power and prestige.
In his experience, Latinos aren’t interested in that, he says. On the contrary, they would be able to flourish if they had the latitude to invest themselves fully in the field of education.
“You can’t be in East LA and tell us not to build our learning cultures in the way that’s indigenous to this community,” says Vigil. “You can’t be in North Denver or South Chicago without integrating the indigenous beliefs that are responsible for integrity and perseverance within those respective communities.”