Four Latina Education Leaders on Better Serving Dual Language Learners and Families

leana Ortiz, a New Orleans parent advocate with EdNavigator, talks about ensuring that dual language families are recognized and included: When I think about the families I serve in my community, these families have risked everything. They’ve crossed oceans, they’ve been detained, they’ve experienced things that are really tragic and traumatic, and a big reason why is to try and give their families and their kids a shot at a better life. And they believe that comes with education. I get pretty fiery when I feel like I’m not seeing that honored by teachers or by schools. Sometimes when I’m talking to teachers and schools about offering translated materials, it sounds like I’m asking for something extra. But it’s not something extra.

There are almost 60 million Latinos in the U.S., and Latino children make up almost a quarter of the children in our country — and our schools. Still, “media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns.”

Hispanic Heritage Month, ending today, is an opportunity to elevate stories of resilience and identify opportunities to positively engage Latino communities. Bellwether is taking a look at language access and the ways our schools either engage or fail to engage bilingual families. Dual language learners (DLLs), children under the age of 8 who have at least one parent who speaks a language other than English, represent a fast-growing group of students in the United States, and the most prevalent language spoken by this group is Spanish. 

But our education system is failing these children in both our approach and attitude. Many of our education policies are oriented toward remedying “deficits” in English, instead of embracing  bilingualism as an asset that leads towards multicultural perspectives, advanced learning, and national enrichment. This deficit-based approach contributes to academic disparities between DLLs and monolingual students that are evident as early as kindergarten. When educational settings devalue DLLs’ strengths, families of dual language learners can feel unwelcome.   

In the course of researching our new report, Language Counts: Supporting Early Math Development for Dual Language Learners, we spoke to parents and advocates to understand why it’s important to shift from a deficit- to an asset-based model of engagement with dual language learners. 

These conversations elevate the voices of those who are too often an afterthought when creating education policy and serve as a reminder that every child and every parent, regardless of their English proficiency, deserves equal access to the support they need to succeed. 

Ileana Ortiz, a New Orleans parent advocate with EdNavigator, talks about ensuring that dual language families are recognized and included:

When I think about the families I serve in my community, these families have risked everything. They’ve crossed oceans, they’ve been detained, they’ve experienced things that are really tragic and traumatic, and a big reason why is to try and give their families and their kids a shot at a better life. And they believe that comes with education. I get pretty fiery when I feel like I’m not seeing that honored by teachers or by schools. Sometimes when I’m talking to teachers and schools about offering translated materials, it sounds like I’m asking for something extra. But it’s not something extra. I explain to my families that monolingual families get information about their students and they can read it in their language. I remind my parents that what they are asking for is the bare minimum. Navigating the system [for dual language families] is a type of power and a privilege, and we’re trying to level the playing field for the families I work with. 

Leti, a parent in Chicago who co-facilitated a family math program, Mighty Math, talks about why it’s important to have educational programs, specifically math programs, targeted towards her community: 

Educational programs like this are impactful for me because our communities need this and we don’t have enough people showing us that [success in academics] is possible. In Latino communities, we have very low rates of graduating from university. [Parents from the Mighty Math] program would ask, “Don’t you want your children to graduate from college?” and parents would respond, “yes”. Then the instructor would transition to talking about the importance of math and starting math at an early age. It’s something I wish I had. This program has a big impact on parents because this knowledge is an inheritance that can be passed along to future generations. 

Gigliana Melzi, a professor and researcher at New York University, shares how she uses an asset-based approach in her work supporting DLL families to strengthen early mathematical thinking:

One of the main threads of my work has been to look at Latino families from a strength-based perspective, identifying and highlighting what they already do before any intervention. My goal is not to change their practices, but more importantly to enhance the practices they already do. Much of developmental psychology focuses on what parents don’t do and blame is placed on parents, especially parents whose first language is not English. But parents are doing things that facilitate learning with their children. They are doing things that are invisible to those within the education system. The education system has a certain set of expectations of what parental involvement looks like, and we need to educate teachers to be more accepting of the diversity of strengths and skills that children and families already have when they enter the classroom. 

Giselle Doyle, Deputy Director of Operations and Special Projects with Community Organizing and Family Issues, shares her personal experiences coming from a multilingual family and what needs to happen next to support dual language families: 

My first language was Spanish. My parents for a long time saw it as a deficit that they could speak a second language. There needs to be a paradigm shift to push monolingual families to take action to help create a multilingual society. If you shift your mindset to view parents as a resource or an asset, this would be helpful. 

Our nation’s economic and civic future will depend on students who are dual language learners, and any legitimate effort to improve achievement gaps in U.S. education must center the needs of dual language learners. This will require changes in policy and in the hearts and minds of our nation’s education leaders to understand the strengths of dual language communities.

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