Fidel Montero has students who have gone through nine years of school before they’ve interacted with a Latino teacher or administrator.
“I do get a lot of students, when I tell them I’m the principal, they’re surprised because they don’t picture the principal of a large, comprehensive high school as someone who looks like them,” said Montero, who’s the principal of Timpview High School in Provo.
Those experiences aren’t rare. Out of more than 130 Utah County district schools, Montero, who is the principal of Timpview High School in Provo, is one of two known Latino principals in the county, according to Latinos in Action and the Utah chapter of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents. He’s joined by Geovanni Guzman, the former principal of Provo Peaks Elementary School, who now leads Suncrest Elementary School in Orem.
Latino administrators and teachers are rare in Utah, and as the number of Latinos grow in the area, so might the gap between Latino students and educators.
Latinos are the largest racial minority group of students in Utah and make up about 17 percent of statewide enrollment in K-12 education, while Latino educators made up 2.45 percent of the 37,326 active educators in public schools during the 2017-18 school year, according to information from the Utah State Board of Education.
Latino educators are the third largest group of educators in Utah, beaten by the 4.04 percent of educators whose race is unknown.
Educators self report their ethnicity when they begin the licensing process.
The Latino student population varies between school district in Utah County. Latinos are the most prominent in Provo City School District, where 23.82 percent of students were identified as Hispanic, according to 2017 enrollment information. About 11.5 percent of students in the Alpine School District identified as Hispanic and 11.78 percent of students in the Nebo School District identified as Latino, according to state information.
The Alpine School District — Utah’s largest school district — does not have special initiatives to hire Latino employees, according to David Stephenson, a spokesman for the Alpine School District.
He said the district is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
“Alpine School District hires individuals based on their skillset and proper licensing and certification and their ability to complete the essential functions of the position,” Stephenson said in an emailed statement.
Teachers before leaders
Educators become administrators. And when the number of Latino teachers is already small, so is the pool of potential Latino principals.
Latinos in Action, a leadership program that started at Timpview High School in 2001 and has since spread to more than 100 schools, is looking to change that.
“I think we have been building that pipeline,” said José Enriquez, the founder and CEO of Latinos in Action and a former administrator.
His vision is for students who enroll in Latinos in Action to become teachers and educators. The organization has already produced two school counselors.
He wanted to do more to help Latino teachers become administrators.
He attended a meeting for the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents — known as ALAS — and decided to found a Utah chapter.
Utah’s chapter has an annual dinner, a mentoring program and has awarded two scholarships to aspiring Latino administrators.
“I see no limits,” Enriquez said. “They are going to do much more than they can imagine because we are going to create a stage where they can showcase their talent.”
The challenge is also to get Latino students into college and their own classrooms. Latino students choose not to go into the education field for the same reasons as Caucasian students, according to Axel Ramirez, a professor of secondary education and the facilitator of the Latino Educators of Tomorrow program at Utah Valley University.
He promotes the benefits of being a teacher to students, like having a schedule that could work well with their family’s schedule and being able to teach anywhere.
Ramirez said students working multiple jobs and supporting families can be swayed from entering the education field by higher paying jobs they can get with a degree they invested the same amount of time and money into.
Students are sometimes also counseled away from the profession from their immigrant parents.
Ramirez was in fifth grade when he told his mother he wanted to be a teacher. She expected him to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.
“The comment was, ‘I didn’t come to this country for you to just be a teacher,’” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said many Latino students who pursue teaching do it because they want other students to see Latino educators.
“They want to give back to the teachers that helped them and mentored them and also help the next generation so they don’t have the same experiences,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said greater retention for Latino students in college is helping with boosting numbers of Latinos in education programs. UVU has seen its overall Latino student enrollment increase by 254 percent and its graduation rates for Latino students has increased by 215 percent since 2007.
Ramirez said the Latino Educators of Tomorrow program has helped increase retention. If he sees a student twice during their freshman year, it’s likely he’ll see them graduate.
The program, which started 10 years ago, identifies students who want to be teachers and provides them emotional support and mentoring.
Ramirez is in contact with about 50 students. He reaches out to high school students to make them aware the program exists and inform them about scholarships.
Ramirez said first-generation Latino students don’t always know about federal financial aid availability or how to apply for it.
They can also struggle to pay for college living expenses and can fall behind in school if they are working multiple jobs.
A tap on the shoulder
Belinda Talonia was 8 years old when she stood in her mother’s classroom and decided she wanted to be a teacher.
It wasn’t until an administrator said he couldn’t wait for Talonia to become one that she considered it.
“I had reached the pinnacle of my aspirations and I had arrived,” Talonia said. “I felt so comfortable in the classroom and I felt like I had really peaked.”
Once it was there, the idea never left. She found an evening program at Brigham Young University and is now an assistant principal at Mountain View High School in Orem with aspirations to become a principal.
Talonia considers herself bicultural and grew up in a traditional Latino home that taught her that being a minority wasn’t because she was less. Her grandfather, who immigrated to Provo from Mexico, told her to take the best from both cultures to become her best self.
She initially struggled in college and uses her own college experience to encourage students.
“Sometimes I tell them straight out, do this for your parents,” Talonia said. “Do this because they have sacrificed so much for you to be in the situation you are in.”
Her family is setting up a scholarship at UVU that will be given to future Latino educators.
For Ingrid Andromidas, the diversity specialist for the Alpine School District, the idea to be an administrator also came from a figurative tap on the shoulder.
She’d planned to remain in the classroom for her entire career before seeing the need and getting a push from her principal.
Andromidas is now studying to be an administrator after receiving a scholarship from ALAS-Utah. She plans to stay in the Alpine School District.
“For me, it is important to stay in the district where there are not enough minority representatives, because I think I need to be that voice until there is more representation in the district,” Andromidas said.
Paula Espinoza, the president of the Utah chapter of ALAS, said most Latino teachers have been encouraged to become administrators by a Caucasian ally.
She said districts can improve the hiring process by posting jobs where minorities can see them, like the ALAS website.
“In Utah specifically we don’t really have great plans at the district level for recruiting people,” Espinoza said.
The Utah affiliate of ALAS started three years ago to provide financial and personal support for Latino educators.
Through its scholarships and mentoring, it hopes to help its members navigate through the hiring system to get to an interview, provide role models and break down the cost barrier to getting a master’s degree.
There are school districts in Utah without a single Latino principal; Espinoza has noticed the first people to be put in leadership roles tend to be Caucasian.
She believes there should be an equal opportunity for Latinos.
“We still have work to do,” Espinoza said. “There is still a lot of courageous conversations about race that have to happen at all levels of the system. There is still some systematic racism that goes on in education in general and I think there are some districts doing a better job of trying to work through some of that.”
Espinoza said Alpine School District Superintendent Sam Jarman has been supportive and that support is needed from high levels in Utah school districts.
She said Latino educators are role models to their students and adding diversity to a school helps students learn how to work with different types of people.
Another step is for students to hear positive things about careers in education.
“You hear educators say now that it is such a hard job and that they don’t recommend people go into education,” Espinoza said. “We need people to go into education because we need educators.”
ALAS hopes to see the number of Latino administrators double in the next five years and eventually match student demographics.
The organization has been unable to get a list of Latino educators and Espinoza has also attempted with varying success to get districts to email employees about ALAS.
Finding numbers is also difficult. It’s easy to find demographic information about Utah’s students, but recent demographic information about teachers isn’t posted online.
Andromidas believes the information districts have is incorrect. Alpine School District records show the district has 17 Latino educators, but Andromidas knows of Latinos whose race is marked as Caucasian on records.
“When I looked into it for my name I was identified as Caucasian,” she said.
She thinks the system could automatically mark employees as Caucasian if they don’t self-identify their race.
Enriquez wants districts to intentionally seek Latino administrators and points to states like Texas and California to recruit from.
He said he’s seen a lack of upward mobility among Latino administrators and Latino administrators have to fight the idea they’re hired solely for their race.
“I have to work two or three times harder and more intelligent so I can stand out, which is fine, because it makes me the better administrator, but it’s still difficult because the upward mobility isn’t there,” Enriquez said.
He said Latino educators bring along strengths such as rich cultural backgrounds, a nurturing nature and a knowledge of more than one language.
He challenges the private sector to fund additional scholarships for ALAS.
Latino, and an educator
In high school, Montero didn’t have college aspirations. The son of a farm laborer, he grew up around poverty and it wasn’t until high school when he connected with people who gave him the vision of pursuing higher education.
“When I was making a decision about going into a career in education, I really gravitated towards leadership,” Montero said. “I had a firsthand look at the impact good administrators, good leaders can have on the school system.”
As principal, his racial background automatically breaks down walls with Latino students.
He advises school administration to learn the stories of their Latino families and have a goal of connecting with one family a week.
Andromidas said Latino families have the same goals for their children as any family — they want to see them succeed and listen to their teachers. As a Latino educator, she’s had to assert herself as a leader, which isn’t always natural for her. She’s conscious to dress in a way that identifies her as a leader, and will introduce herself to whoever is running a meeting so they know who she is.
“If not, I get asked if I can bring them something to drink,” Andromidas said.
Talonia’s race often provides an initial connection to parents, but she wants to form connections with Latino students and parents for additional reasons. She’s had a high success rate in leading engagement for Latino parents.
“Latino parents are different than Anglo parents in a sense where Latino parents will come out if they know that someone else that they know will be there,” Talonia said.
She’s found that initiatives aimed to help all students also help Latino students. In 2015, hispanic students at Mountain View High School had a 97.1 percent graduation rate, higher than the overall school graduation rate of 92.5 percent.
She said she wants Latino parents to know they are valued. She invites Latino families to get to know principals and teachers.
“We want them to come to our schools, we want them to be apart of our community councils and our PTAs, and that might feel foreign and feel different, but we really need their voices,” Talonia said.