UnidosUS Celebrates Women’s History Month with Insights from Three Latina Educational Leaders
The growing U.S. Latino population needs a larger pool of educators and advocates who represent their unique cultural and linguistic identities while sensitizing others in the school system and beyond. In honor of Women’s History Month, ProgressReport is uplifting the voices of some of the Latina educational leaders who are currently making history by paving the way for the next generation of changemakers. UnidosUS celebrates the accomplishments of three Latinas representing excellence at all levels of the education system – Miriam Calderon, Maria Armstrong, and Melody Gonzales – they share their journeys and insights with Progress Report.
Early Childhood Education
Miriam Calderon, chief policy officer for ZERO TO THREE, the nation’s largest early childhood advocacy organization, has spent two decades advocating for young children, especially Latinos and dual language learners, to have a better early start in their education. She served as UnidosUS’s associate director of education policy, early childhood education director of DC Public Schools, senior director of early learning at the Bainum Family Foundation, and as an appointee of the Obama and the Biden Administrations, as well as former Oregon Governor Kate Brown, all leading efforts to reinforce and grow early education programs. Today, her career is fully aligned with trending education policy conversations.
At the onset of the pandemic, she was tasked with helping to provide emergency grants to early childhood centers across the state of Oregon, which boasts the fastest-growing Latino population in the country. That work reinforced what she already knew: this country’s early childhood education system had always lacked an appropriate infrastructure and the pandemic simply revealed and exacerbated that reality.
“Our systems for communicating with providers in real-time were threadbare – to know if providers were open, if they had spaces where we could refer families. It was challenging to get providers and programs PPE; to give grants to providers to offset their higher costs of operating during the pandemic,” she says, noting that this marked the first time many providers had the opportunity to receive public funding. “It took literally seeing the sector come close to collapse for there to be a shift in understanding that ECE is an essential service.”
The pandemic also helped to reveal historic bias and discrimination against those who provide ECE services.
“We’ve understood for decades that babies are born learning, ” she says. “If it was just about educating policymakers and the public about this – we have done that repeatedly as a field. The lack of progress is about who does this work – women of color, immigrant women, low-income women.”
That means acknowledging their fundamental human rights while recognizing their role in raising an increasingly diverse generation headed for a competitive global workforce.
“It’s about valuing our youngest citizens,” she adds. “We spend more public funds on children as they get older and the least during the first 1000 days.”
As the general public gains greater awareness of these concerns, advocates like herself feel more emboldened in their approach to policymakers.
“We are finally asking for what it will truly take to build a sector that eliminates race, income, and zip code as a predictor of the ECE experience for a child and families that is fair to the workforce, that will capitalize on the importance of this developmental period, and that can deliver the ECE experiences that families want and need for their young children, especially families that have historically lacked access.”
That boldness is getting advocates closer to the goal. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan proposed investing a historic $390 billion in federal funds for childcare and pre-K, and only one dissenting vote from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) within the Democratic Caucus kept it from passing. Childcare and education were not included in the Inflation Reduction Act, the compromise bill that followed and ultimately got signed into law.
The near victory only fuels Calderon to keep pushing through her work at ZERO TO THREE, which, in partnership with organizations like UnidosUS, has successfully advocated for increases in Migrant Head Start and getting language access provisions for families in the major federal ECE programs.
“We still have a long way to go,” she says, noting that a lack of support for linguistically and culturally relevant ECE programs is rooted in anti-immigrant, pro-English policies. But today, she explains it’s impossible to ignore that one out of every three children is growing up in homes where languages other than English are spoken.
Then comes the question of better support and compensation for ECE teachers.
“If we aren’t compensating (ECE teachers) well and investing in their access to professional learning, credentials, and degrees, we won’t maintain a workforce that reflects the diversity of our children and families,” she explains.
ZERO TO THREE and UnidosUS are keen to keep this discussion centered on the knowledge and experience ECE workers have always brought to the table. For example, they caution against mandating bachelor’s degrees without first investing in the incumbent workforce.
“It’s not about being for or against the requirement. It’s about the barriers that have historically existed for women of color, immigrant women, low-income women to higher education and professional preparation opportunities,” she says. “It’s about not having degrees without the compensation that must go along with it. It’s about honoring the contributions of the workforce that has been doing this work and having options available for them in terms of how they want to advance in their careers.”
She is also a strong advocate for reminding the public that care and education go hand in hand.
“During COVID, I noticed that a lot of the talk about school-age children was about ‘learning loss’ – what children were missing in terms of academics,” she says. “The discussion around childcare was that adults couldn’t work – not that children missed out on important developmental and learning experiences.”
Her advice to Latina ECE workers?
“Continue to demand what you need— we won’t realize bold changes in ECE without your advocacy, without your voice to shape the policy.”
Maria Armstrong, executive director of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS), knows K-12 students need all the support they can get in catching up since the pandemic. She’s spent decades trying to help underserved communities. It began at the age of seven when she gathered kids in the neighborhood to teach them reading and math, or at least that was the role she imagined for herself. It paid off. She went on to serve as an assistant superintendent and superintendent in school districts around California; an adjunct professor at that state’s Azusa Pacific University and National University; and a consultant for the Puerto Rico Department of Education.
“Pandemic-era legislation leaders are in the thick of grappling with the aftermath and exposure of having the education curtain pulled open for all to see,” she says, adding that it is “moving us as a country toward acknowledgment of the past and present conditions to address our future.”
Because the United States is such a young country whose overall educational system once stood at the forefront of modernity, it’s easy for the country to get caught up in that narrative, she explains.
“For too long we have considered ourselves as better than anyone else on the planet, a very monolithic view from a country who prides itself as a melting pot of sorts,” she says.
That view of American exceptionalism probably comes from the fact that overall the country has rallied through many times of war and disaster. So how can it tap into its trait of resiliency and rally today with all students falling behind in their schooling and a greater number of those students coming from communities that were historically underserved in the first place?
“Our challenge is that we are not so young anymore, and it shouldn’t take an act of war or disaster to unite us on the conditions and issues of humanity, particularly that of education,” she says.
Not so young and not so naive. The current U.S. administration is aware that the country’s youthful confidence could pose a direct risk to the nation’s economy and security. For example, during his “Raise the Bar. Lead the World” tour, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona remarked that the quality and innovation of the U.S. education system is falling behind many countries and that it must do more in areas such as multilingual support if it wants to remain competitive.
“We need to raise the bar,” Cardona said in a January 24th speech to kick off his tour. “As much as it is about recovery, it’s also about setting higher standards for academic success in reading and mathematics. It’s unacceptable that in the most recent PISA test, an assessment which is done internationally, our students scored 36th place out of 79 countries in math.”
That’s a goal Armstrong is helping ALAS to lead on behalf of the country’s Latino students and educators. It starts with paying close attention to the issues ALAS’s affiliates are bringing to the discussion table.
“Our strength is only as great as the people we serve and that not only considers how we operate but provides direction in services and programs,” she says, noting that the ALAS’s board of directors boasts educational professionals who have either worked in K-12 leadership or are currently in the higher education space and know what students need to get there. Meanwhile, at the affiliate level, many of the leaders are full-time educators showing their commitment to underserved students by serving ALAS long after their workdays are done.
And their dedication fuels Armstrong’s leadership long after she retired from leading schools herself.
“People often ask me how I manage to attend every state event. My response is simple. Whenever invited, the least I can do is show support because it is through them that I gain my juice, my stamina, and the reason why I came out of the superintendency retirement,” she says.
But improving math and reading scores across all socio-economic groups needs to happen in a culturally relevant way, and it’s intimately tied to understanding the most uncomfortable parts of American history. Those are the parts where students identified as Black, Brown, immigrant, LGBTQ, female, and/or having disabilities were born into a system that historically sought to hold them back, and in many places still does.
To address this, ALAS is joining a long list of organizations working to protect and promote the teaching of truthful history and ethnic studies with the addition of an AP Latino American Course. And in 2020, ALAS partnered with the legacy youth-focused publishing company Scholastic Books to create the Rising Voices: Elevating Latino Stories Collection so that all students see themselves represented in children’s stories.
When asked about advice she has for other K-12 educators and advocates, she said: “I would rather provide encouragement than advice.”
She described that encouragement can come in the form of a reminder or an acknowledgment that advocates of educational equity aren’t in this battle alone. That networking can help to provide the brainstorming, support, and sense of connectedness they need to keep going.
“Our youth, our children, are counting on the adults in and out of the boardroom and classroom to do right by them,” she says. “Find your sister circle, and don’t give up.”
By day, higher education advocate Melody Gonzales serves as the executive director of the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics. By night, she helps other professionals work on advancing their own careers by providing services as an executive leadership coach. On both fronts, she is actively encouraging Latinas to study hard and dream big.
“We need your voices and lived experiences in the education sector and in the federal government as a career staffer, presidential appointees, and policymakers,” she tells her fellow Latinas. “Start with a strong, growth mindset. Identify what negative thoughts or imposter syndrome tendencies might come into play that could hold you back and identify those positive thoughts/mantras and facts that ground you in the fact that you are capable and worthy.”
She also encourages Latinas interested in pursuing careers in education and education policy to always engage in social networking, as she rarely got her many career opportunities through online job applications alone.
In her own career, the early networking came organically as a news reporter in her native San Diego and as the manager of the neighboring Chula Vista Convention and Visitors Bureau. After attending Georgetown University for a master’s degree in public policy and a certificate of executive leadership coaching, as well as several other leadership certificates through Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the Center for Creative Leadership, she found herself in a series of high-powered policy and advocacy roles.
Those included Latino engagement efforts for the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and the founding of her own National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 39 national Latino nonprofits focused on encouraging Latinas to run for office and advising on campaigns related to economic empowerment, immigration, health, education, and voting rights.
UnidosUS has been following her leadership journey on education. From 2018 to 2021, she served as a senior policy and program specialist for the community advocacy and partnership engagement department of the National Education Association (NEA), a role that ultimately led to her appointment by the Biden Administration as the executive director of the White House Initiative for Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence & Economic Opportunity for Hispanics.
“Leading the White House Hispanic Initiative and serving at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) at this moment in history is truly the honor and opportunity of a lifetime,” Gonzales says. “One of the many things I appreciate about my work is that my team and I have the opportunity to engage in both the national landscape, that has injected historic levels of federal funding into school systems that for far too long have been going through a financial drought, as well as more granular local level work, where I hear the stories of people whose lives are being helped by our federal government’s work.”
This includes states, school administrators, educators, parents, students, and advocates who all have a role to play in asking questions and proposing solutions, she says. It’s through engagement efforts like these that the Biden administration is able to push forward some key legislation related to pandemic-era recovery. And that includes historic efforts to help offset the costs of higher education.
For example, the American Rescue Plan delivered $11 billion to help students, educators, and staff at Hispanic Serving Institutions. Data from the Department of Education showed that more than 18 million students received direct financial assistance for tuition and other expenses through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF).
“HEERF is the reason so many HSIs and other campuses expanded counseling and mental health supports, provided tuition assistance (including canceling pre-existing delinquencies), offered students technological equipment, improved distance learning capabilities in classrooms, and kept many faculty, staff, employees, and contractors on the payroll,” Gonzales says.
She also notes that under the leadership of President Biden and Secretary Cardona, more student loans have been canceled than in any other previous administration, and that the public service loan forgiveness waivers and program have helped many Hispanic leaders finally cancel tens of thousands of longstanding debt. In February, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments and will rule this summer on President Biden’s executive action to cancel $10,000-$20,000 for student loan borrowers earning $125,000 per year or less.
If upheld by the Supreme Court, “This move would completely wipe clean the student loan balances of half of Latino borrowers,” says Gonzales. “Our team is also constantly looking for ways to improve the income-driven repayment program and other actions that can help borrowers, especially in light of the pandemic’s economic impact.”
Gonzales is also excited to see the federal government improving academic excellence by making education more rigorous and comprehensive while improving the learning conditions by addressing the teacher shortage and investing in student mental health. And last but not least, Latino students have much to gain through the creation of pathways for global engagements. That is, giving all students a pathway to go to college and a pathway to multilingualism, which, in turn, could create important opportunities for competing in a global economy.
So much of this envisioning of what our society can be comes from the inspiration Gonzales gets from celebrating the great women in her life, including her mother, sister, nieces, and good friends who have all supported her journey to promoting educational equity.
“None of us makes it to where we are alone. I’m grateful for the strength and support of the many great women around me and encourage every woman reading this to be intentional about making time to build, and nourish, yourself as well as the circle of women around you. Stay optimistic and solution-oriented,” says Gonzales.