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Becoming educado: How Utah County's schools are working to engage the Latino community

From the Latinos in Utah County series
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For years, Spanish-speaking parents have sat through graduation ceremonies not understanding a single word.

Not anymore.

“We saw that gap and we said, ‘this has to change,’” said Belinda Talonia, the former administrator of Mountain View High School in Orem.

This summer was the first time there was simultaneous Spanish-to-English translation at the high school’s graduation ceremony. Talonia, now the principal of Orem Junior High School, plans to continue offering translation services for Latino parents at her school’s events.

Latinos made up 17% of Utah’s K-12 students in 2017, according to information from the Utah State Board of Education. And as the number of Latino students increases in the state, so have the efforts of to include the community in students’ education.

Eliminating barriers

Teachers have complained to Rachel Quintana that they feel Latino parents don’t care.

“It wasn’t true,” said Quintana, the parent/student liaison at Orem Junior High School. “It was that the person didn’t understand the language, and they didn’t understand the system, and they didn’t understand how they can help. Nobody explained it to them.”

About 39% of the school’s students were Latino during the 2017-18 school year, according to information from the Utah State Board of Education. Engagement rates of Latino parents, however, have not always matched those numbers.

Quintana said there were very few Latino parents at parent-teacher conferences when she began the job five years ago. Now the school has a 60% attendance for Latinos.

Latino parents face multiple barriers when it comes to engaging with a school, which can include not being familiar enough with English to feel comfortable communicating with a school, not understanding the system and having limitations on time. There’s also a cultural divide between the educational system in Latin American countries versus what is expected in the United States.

Talonia, the first Latina secondary principal in the Alpine School District, said that in most Latin American cultures teachers are seen as professionals equal to doctors and lawyers. Just like how someone in the U.S. wouldn’t tell a surgeon how to do their job, Latino parents wouldn’t do the same for teachers.

“It is expected that they are the professional and they are going to better understand how to teach my child,” Talonia said.

There’s also the concept of “educados,” the Spanish word for educated, which refers to raising a child to be well-mannered.

“I am biased, but I think it is beautiful,” Talonia said. “It is beautiful that this culture thinks that educating their children means teaching them to be good human beings. As a parent, that is the greatest legacy I can give you, educado, being educated.”

Talonia said that when Latino parents attend parent-teacher conferences and ask how their child is doing, they’re referring to how their child is behaving. When a teacher responds by explaining that a child doesn’t understand concepts, Talonia said Latino parents can get confused.

She’s challenged teachers to consider the “what if?” of situations and assume that parents will come. She also asks educators to reconsider what it means to be an engaged parent. Talonia said that can involve a parent reading with their child nightly, making sure to come home to spend time with a child between working two jobs or taking the day off work to go into a school to pay fees or support their child.

“I think that as schools, we need to open our hearts and our souls and see that parents are trying to do the best they can,” Talonia said.

Engagement, she said, goes both ways.

“Nowhere in parent engagement do I hear that parents have to do all the work,” she said.

She’s pushed for social media posts to be in both Spanish and English, and her weekly principal newsletter goes out in both languages, as well. Having a parent/student liaison, she said, helps add a position that is flexible and able to make home visits, translate and support teachers.

“This position is vital, and I don’t understand how schools can function without that,” she said.

Quintana works with parents who sometimes show up to the school during their lunch breaks, in uniform and ready to help out however they can in their limited time. She also teaches parents how to use the Alpine School District’s online systems to stay up-to-date on how their child is doing academically.

“We take away the barriers and we help them say that now it’s not a barrier, it’s a tool,” she said.

Celebrating success

Talonia’s secret to engaging parents is simple.

“If you celebrate students, parents will come,” Talonia said. “If we are constantly calling home to nag on their kids, to tell them what is wrong with their kid, to tell them what they have to do to fix their kid, nobody is going to show up. If you want your Latino families — if you want any family — to show up, celebrate their kids.”

Not only do the Latino families show up to watch their children get awards, but they’ll dress up and bring everyone, from younger siblings to grandparents.

She’s allocated money to go toward parent engagement activities, which could include a duplication of the Somos Mountain View event where teachers nominate students for awards. Talonia said the awards give a chance for students to be recognized for achievements outside of their GPA.

The school is looking to build a food pantry, will host a mental health night in Spanish that will be open to the entire district and holds a growing Jaguar Spirit Night. Talonia would also like to see a formalized parent academy.

“If we want to have people feel comfortable in our school, then let’s bring them in for more than discipline issues,” she said. “If the only reason a parent comes into our school is because we are disciplining their child, then we have failed.”

Creating leaders

There’s nine years worth of Latinos in Action class photos lining the brightly-colored walls of Lucy Ordaz Sanchez’s classroom at Dixon Middle School in Provo. Ordaz Sanchez, who teaches both the Latinos in Action class and family and consumer science, set out as a teacher to have an impact on Latino students at the school.

“I want to be that teacher that I always wish I had,” Ordaz Sanchez said.

Her class at Dixon Middle School, a school that was 36% Latino last year, creates that space for students at the age where they are discovering who they want to be.

“They find a place where they belong and we believe in each other,” she said.

Latinos in Action is a curriculum designed to develop leadership skills and bridge the opportunity gap between Latino and Caucasian students. Ordaz Sanchez will take the students on field trips to universities, assigns them to learn about their family history, encourages them to pronounce their last names like their mothers do and to be proud of their culture.

The students form tight bonds, and have joined together to visit injured athletes in the hospital or make thousands of tamales to help a local family after the death of a child.

Within the first two weeks of school she has a mandatory meeting with parents where she goes over the class, encourages them to spend time with their children and shares personal stories.

“Somehow it always happens that we are full of tears,” Ordaz Sanchez said. “The parents see themselves in the way that I was raised and how I wish things would have been a little different, and how they want to change.”

She constantly keeps parents involved and encourages mothers and fathers to come.

While other teachers can get overwhelmed with thinking about the effort of reaching out to Latino families, Ordaz Sanchez said all it takes is to try. Latino parents want to get involved, but aren’t sure what they’re allowed to do.

“They just need to know how, and sometimes they don’t know how to get involved,” said said.

She points to one mother who didn’t know that she had access to the school.

Ordaz Sanchez also encourages teachers to ask their students about what type of teacher they’d want their instructor to be. She’s heard students who have said that soccer could be used as an incentive for them, and said it’s especially important to hear from the troublemakers.

“It changes quite a bit if you take the time to understand and listen, and to ask,” she said.

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