In early December, several dozen education leaders met in a conference room in Arizona’s State Capitol Building in Phoenix to learn about the new statewide nonprofit organization Arizona Latino Leaders in Education (ALL in Education). The event began with a testimonial from a young Latina student who told the audience in Spanish about the barriers she faces as an immigrant, while a fellow student interpreted her words in English.
Audience members smiled congenially at first, recognizing so many of her experiences in their own, or in those of their students across the state. But soon the interpreter was antsy and irritated. He began questioning the importance of certain details of her story as they related to the mission at hand. As he did so, audience members cringed, some even slipping each other notes at their respective tables to complain that his manner just didn’t seem right.
At the end of the testimonial, the students introduced themselves as members of the Phoenix Community College Theater Club. Then, ALL in Education Consultant Jeff Zetino came forward with the statement he wants his organization to make:
“We don’t need translators. We need advocates. We need representatives. We need people with the lived experience necessary to fight and to create change for our students,” he said. “I always thought that we had a broken education system, but the more we went into the data, we saw that it’s broken for some of us but not for all of us.”
“In the last 20 years, Latinos students haven’t done better,” added ALL in Education Founder Luis Avila. “Not having us at the table is not acceptable when almost half of the (the state’s) students are Latino.” Given this reality, the organization states that its mission is “to ensure communities most impacted by education inequities are the ones making decisions for ALL children..”
UnidosUS co-hosted the forum with ALL in Education
“We are thrilled to join ALL In Education in Arizona for its organizational launch,” Eric Rodriguez, Senior Vice President, Policy and Advocacy, UnidosUS said in a statement. “We look forward to working together to create opportunity, develop leaders, and leverage a national network of advocates that can work toward achieving education equity for Latino students in Arizona.”
Latinos Are America’s Future
Not only are these numbers dismal to Latinos, they could represent a failure or an opportunity for the rest of the country, noted keynote speaker Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) President and CEO Marco Davis. He referenced census data to explain that Latinos now represent 60 million people in living in the United States, and they’ll represent 90 million by the year 2060. They’re also young. In fact, with a median age of 29, the community is on average nine years younger than the country’s population as a whole.
“The point here is that we’re young and we’re growing, which has implications for the entire nation,” said Davis.
UnidosUS Education Policy Associate Director Amalia Chamorro and UnidosUS K-12 Education Policy Analyst Tania Valencia reiterated these concerns with more specific data from Arizona with the release of a new factsheet, Educational Equity: Latino and English Learner Success in Arizona.
“We are at a critical point in righting the course of education equity and fostering a new age of academic success. Arizona has an opportunity to ensure the state’s future economic success by advancing policies and practices that support the educational achievement of Latino students in Arizona,” said Valencia. “Latino students make up over half a million, or 46% of Arizona’s K-12 students. And there are more than 75,000 ELs in Arizona, enough to fill up the Superdome.”
Since the adoption of Proposition 203 in 2000, which requires that all classes be taught in English, English Learners (ELs) have been limited in the type of instruction they have accessible to them. Data show that the intended goals of Proposition 203 to help children acquire “a good knowledge of English” and allow them to “fully participate in the American Dream” has not been achieved. During the 2015-16 school year, Arizona was one of six states in which fewer than half of ELs graduated from high school on time. Across the entire nation, Arizona was the state with the largest opportunity gap in graduation rates, with the EL graduation rate 48 percentage points lower than the graduation rate for non-ELs.
Proposition 203 has impacted the educational opportunity of an entire generation of Arizona students. Student access to high-quality coursework as well as valuable peer-to-peer exposure between ELs and their native-English speaking peers has been limited, resulting in little to no academic progress for tens of thousands of students. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report shows that between 2003 to 2019, the fourth grade reading basic level attainment for ELs in Arizona has decreased by three percentage points and stands at 15% in 2019.
“We need to forge and elevate our voice, and be in places of decision making power if we are going to make systemic change,” said Chamorro.
Arizona Policymakers Weigh In
The last half of the ALL in Education launch was dedicated to having current Arizona lawmakers and education leaders share their ideas on how to engage on the state’s policy concerns. The panel was made up of Delphina Avila, federal programs coordinator for Phoenix’s Laveen Elementary School District, and two members of the Arizona House Education Committee, State Representatives Geraldine Peten, a Democrat from District 4, and Reginald Bolding, the ranking Democrat from District 27. Both represent heavily populated Latino districts.
“English is important. We have to have it to have a good job, but we have to know who our students are and how we work with diverse children,” said Avila, noting that students need support in all academic areas to achieve their professional goals. And given the changing generational demographics, she said she wanted to ensure that she, a Generation Xer, is in good hands when she’s elderly and today’s children are out in the workforce, potentially in fields like medicine.
Peten said she wanted to see students have opportunities to access that profession as well as ones able to participate in the global market.
“We’ve really regressed. We should truly strive to be a multilingual nation,” she said noting that part of her role in government is to promote business alliances between the state of Arizona and other countries. For example, she’s currently working to set up trade offices in Mexico and Israel. “The only way you can do that is to look for students who speak more than one language and right now that’s not happening,” said Peten.
And in addition to language and cultural competency, Bolding said the launch of ALL in Education is yet another reason to discuss the way we prepare students for new industries and economic outlooks we have yet to know.
“What is the missed opportunity that we have for those students? What is the purpose of education? Many people believe the purpose is to get a good job. Others may say it provides you with opportunities to take risks. How do you leverage your education?” He asked, wondering how teaching practices should also help students to think about leadership roles in entrepreneurial terms.
Paying it Forward
Throughout the launch of ALL In Education, Zetino and Avila encouraged growth in Latino educational leadership by announcing a campaign to raise the organization’s first $100,000 by encouraging 10 Latino leaders to pledge $1,000 from their own pockets.
The first contributor was UnidosUS Senior Vice President of Development and Strategic Initiatives Delia de la Vara, herself a native of Phoenix and of Arizona’s public school system.
“The success of the Latino community leads to the success of the country,” she told the audience. “You all have invested and contributed for decades to make this country stronger.”
De la Vara also noted that Arizona—and more specifically Phoenix—has been the site of many historic announcements for Latinos, especially for UnidosUS. The organization was founded here 50 years ago under the name Southwest Council of La Raza, and grew into National Council of La Raza as it picked up widespread support around the country. Today, it’s called UnidosUS, with the goal of ensuring a sense of Latino unity in every state in the union. De la Vara is hopeful that with the right support, a similar scenario could happen with ALL in Education.
“Maybe this is something that catches fire in other states because it’s really needed,” she said.