Ed. Note: Latino students comprise over half the K-12 student population in California, and while graduation rates for Latinos are on the rise, a persistent achievement gap continues to separate them from their white and Asian counterparts. Sergio Cuellar is statewide campaign coordinator with Californians for Justice, a grassroots advocacy group that works with Latino and other minority groups in the state. He says communication and engagement are key to closing the gap. This is the second in a series of NAM interviews with those involved in the state’s education reform movement. (See pt. 1 here.)
What are you seeing in California now that excites you with respect to closing the achievement gap for Latino students?
There is a lot of promise with Local Control Funding Formula, if it’s implemented in the right way. And with Latino students making up a big portion of EL students and the low-income population [in the state], seeing what could come out of this new formula is very exciting for us. But we’re also working in the community to really make sure the new funds go toward improving services and educational attainment.
What are you hearing from Latino parents and students in the communities you work in about what they need most?
We hear a lot from parents, and especially parents of English Learner (EL) students, about the need for more engagement. There’s a feeling of not being listened to and not being engaged deeply in the process as much as other parents who speak English. In Fresno we heard from parents – both Hmong and Latino – about the need for deeper afterschool programs that offer more than just taking care of children … programs that are more geared toward assisting students with homework or that offer tutoring services, as opposed to just extracurricular activities. We’ve also heard a lot about access to more college oriented courses for ESL students. Parents feel that a lot of the time these students are just kept in the EL track and not given access to new college or career-bound coursework even when they are improving in English.
Are you seeing a shift in attitudes toward education among Latino parents?
What I’ve seen over the last few years is a willingness to get involved, on the one hand, but also a fear of getting too involved. For parents of undocumented students, for example, they wonder what might happen … will their status be disclosed? Is someone going to find out? There’s a fear of exposing the family. The other piece is those parents who are willing to get involved but who don’t know how to navigate the system. Not having access or even the means of navigating the school system stops parents from getting more deeply involved. And this gets back to the promise of LCFF … the actual communities surrounding a school will have a deeper say of how monies get spent, but the formula also reframes how these communities are engaged.
What are the attitudes you’ve seen among parents regarding the push to bring more technology into the classroom?
I know many parents are concerned more with the conditions of the actual school … making sure it has clean water, has open bathrooms, enough desks in the classroom so kids aren’t left standing, and extra sets of books that kids can actually take home. These basic needs would definitely be something parents would push for … unless they really understood how tools like the iPad are going to be used to replace some of these basic needs. There has to be some deeper connection in explaining how all this technology is going to impact the educational needs of their kids.
What about in the classroom. How well are teachers connecting with Latino students?
There’s an issue in the realm of cultural competency … in Davis, they only had one teacher who was Latino in a school of 1600 students. They had no African American teachers. Some of the students would say, “I don’t see anyone in a power position that looks or talks like me, or understands where I am coming from.” If they don’t feel comfortable or see some adult figure they might be able to connect with, that’s going to be an issue.
A big focus of CFJ involves connecting communities to decision makers in Sacramento. What are the challenges there?
When folks in Sacramento want to find out what’s happening in education, they tend to go to the experts rather than straight to the people on the ground. It’s great we have that advocacy level and the research that comes with it, representing these communities on educational equity. But it’s a different story than actually bringing young people or bringing parents to the capitol and seeing them as experts. That’s still a challenge and it’s something we’ve been trying to crack.
It’s also difficult for schools and communities trying to figure out what the different policies are … they make their way from the legislature to the State Board and finally to the districts, and sometimes even the districts don’t understand what they are. It’s disheartening to come across schools that may be serving higher populations of low-income or EL students, yet they allow the district to say what programs get run in because they just don’t understand the process.
Beyond LCFF, what are some of the other issues that CFJ is focusing in on?
We’re actually going through our strategic plan at this point. We’ve identified LCFF at least for the next year or two to do really deep work in the communities we’re in – and that’s San Jose, Fresno, Long Beach and Oakland. One a statewide level, we’ve partnered with the Campaign for Quality Education to deliver LCFF 101 workshops. Every one of our chapters is also doing work on LCFF to build a critical mass and to build up knowledge and put pressure on districts to make sure parent and student voices are part of the conversation. Across the state, we’ve really played a convener role to really push the issue of LCFF and to push communities to come out and take part in pressuring the district … to show that we know what’s going on and that you’re going to be held accountable.