Latino Education Summit Showcases 'Agenda of Hope'

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AFT Officers and other participants at the Latino Summit 2010 From left, Juan Andrade, president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute; AFT secretary-treasurer Antonia Cortese; Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of LaRaza; AFT president Randi Weingarten; Lillian Rodriguez-Lopez, chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda; AFT vice president Maria Neira; and Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The AFT teamed up with the National Education Association and the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute for a two-day summit on Nov. 18 and 19 in Washington, D.C., that highlighted practices, policies and programs to help Latino students soar in public schools.

National speakers and policymakers were highlighted at the event, which was aimed at members of the United States Council on Latino Affairs. USCLA encompasses directors of Latino affairs, commissions and agencies in 24 states. The council works to promote Latino community priorities at the national level, and to identify promising practices for the agencies and programs headed by USCLA members.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis addressed the summit, along with Eduardo Ochoa, the assistant U.S. secretary for postsecondary of education; Janet Murguía, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of La Raza; Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; and Lillian Rodríguez López, chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda and president of the Hispanic Federation. 

Solis, a first-generation American, recounted how her rise to public leadership was a story that depended largely on the public school teachers in her life and the encouragement they offered along the way. "Young people need to be inspired, to see through their own prism that they can seize these dreams," she said, adding that strong public schools are essential to that inspiration.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis The labor secretary stressed that the Obama administration wants to broaden these opportunities for all students, particularly when it comes to historically underserved populations such as Latino students. She said that the Labor Department is "pleased to play a big part in this effort" to preserve and expand equity and access for all students.

In a lunch discussion with the summit participants, AFT president Randi Weingarten talked about how public education and the labor movement together can provide opportunities for students—especially those who need more help—and for working people who aspire to be productive members of the middle class. And the Latino community, she continued, can be part of promoting this "positive agenda of hope."

Weingarten passed out copies of her latest "What Matters Most" column, which appeared recently in the New York Times, to show the sort of education agenda the AFT plans to focus on in coming months. It includes elements such as collaboration, improved systems for teacher development and evaluation, tools for teachers and students, and schools as the centers of the community. "We need to work together on an agenda that really helps all kids," she said.

"Working together, we can open a world of opportunities for the Latino students in our public schools," said NEA president Dennis Van Roekel. "Educators, families and community leaders must better engage and support these students, keep them on a path to graduation, and keep their expectations high as they consider college and careers."

"It is important that leaders at all levels—local, state and national—be engaged in the struggle to improve the quality of education in America," said Juan Andrade, president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. "To be competitive in a rapidly changing and complex world, America must summon the collective will of all sectors to ensure that our schools are places where all students can learn what they need in order to succeed in a global society."

Defying categories
"Although we are here to talk about 'Latino' students, categorizing who our Latino students are is not simple," AFT secretary-treasurer Antonia Cortese stressed in her remarks at the summit. "Our Latino children now attend schools all across the country. … Some are English language learners, but many are not. Some come from immigrant families, while others have families who have been here for generations. The bottom line is: No matter what a student's background or ZIP code or immigration status may be, every child in every neighborhood school in every state deserves a great education."

The summit also featured a comprehensive series of panel presentations on topics central to the education of Latino students. In a session on best practices in K-12 education, AFT vice president Maria Neira talked about the role of the AFT nationally in setting forth a vision for educating Latino students and in advocating for policies the union's affiliates can focus on in their states and districts.

Community collaborations are an important priority, said Neira, who also is a New York State United Teachers vice president. "That is at the core of what we have to do locally," she said. She also discussed the AFT's recent work in areas such as teacher quality, high school graduation rates and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as well as the union's support for legislation like the DREAM Act. DREAM, short for the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors, would pave a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students who successfully complete college or join the military.

Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of LaRaza Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of LaRazaThe need to pursue school reform that is comprehensive and aligns the recently adopted Common Core State Standards with proficiency standards for English language learners was stressed by several panelists. Also highlighted was the value of parent engagement and high-quality early childhood education, along with college affordability and faculty diversity, as supports that can help more Latino students enter college and graduate.

A national priority
José Rico, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, also addressed the summit and underscored how the work of his office is central to the nation's future. Latino students represent an increasing proportion of today's student population, he stressed, and there simply is no path to success in public education if schools fail to unlock the immense human capital that Latino students offer to the nation.

This is "not just a Latino problem, it's an American problem," said Rico. Solving it demands cooperation at every level and strong approaches that extend from early childhood through advanced learning. Rico said his office is now engaged in a series of community-level meetings across the country, and the message coming from the field is clear: a call "to do something on the ground" that builds alliances, that helps teachers, nonprofits, corporations, public officials and parents work together for better educational outcomes that Latino students deserve and future national prosperity demands.

"The United States Council on Latino Affairs is thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss the serious challenges facing Latino communities throughout the United States," said José Ibarra, who chairs that council, as well as the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs. "Even though we have experienced a great deal of progress, it is obvious that more needs to be done. USCLA stands ready to work with the AFT, NEA and USHLI to address the challenges facing our Latino students locally, drawing upon the models of success and best practices from the national level." [Mike Rose, Cesar Moreno Perez, Dan Gursky]

November 23, 2010