A group of Latinx parents look at Jessica Morales in awe as she explains her teaching philosophy. Morales, the principal at Bancroft Elementary School in Mount Pleasant, does not send any material home if it is not translated to Spanish. Or Vietnamese. Or Amharic. When D.C. Public Schools’ central office sends information to her school for parents or guardians, it at times comes only in English and requires translation. If the materials arrive and are not translated, Morales holds off sending anything at all.
“That’s my policy because it’s not equitable,” says Morales. “So my English-dominant parents are going to find out before my other parents? No.”
Morales speaks frankly about what it means to be a Latinx educator in D.C. and one of a handful of Latinx principals in DCPS. For a while, it meant acting as the in-house translator because so few educators knew Spanish. “We have to put a stop to it … Mi enfoque es enseñar, no traducir,” she says, toggling between English and Spanish. Those attending Monday night’s town hall centered around recruiting and retaining Latinx educators appeared to appreciate her candor.
Hosted by the teacher advocacy organization EmpowerEd, the town hall offered both educators and parents a chance to reflect on some troubling statistics. Only 7 percent of the D.C.’s teachers in the public and charter school system are Latinx, while 19 percent of students are Latinx, according to a 2019 report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. The disparity widens depending on the ward. In Ward 1, the teaching workforce is 15 percent Latinx and the student population is 58 percent Latinx; in Ward 4, 10 percent of teachers identify as Latinx as compared to 40 percent of students.
The diversity gap impacts everyone, from teachers to students and their families. That became evident over the course of the evening as over 100 town hall attendees mused about what it means to have so few Latinx educators in the school system. For a Latinx teacher who speaks Spanish, it means increasing an already taxing workload and having to act as a translator. For a Latinx student, it means not always seeing themselves in their school leaders. For a parent, it means a missed connection with someone who spends a significant amount of time with their kid.
How D.C. got here and how the city gets out of this gulf is outlined in a 20-page report released by EmpowerEd in February. The report served as a framework for the town hall housed in Bancroft’s gym. Personal testimonies about why increasing the number of Latinx educators should be a priority for city officials were offered throughout the night.
Isabella Sanchez, a teacher at a high-performing school in Ward 1, is one of just three Latinx teachers at her campus, even though more than 50 percent of the 426 students at the school are Latinx and more than 40 percent are English-language learners. She shared how her identity enabled students and their family members to confide in her. They’ve sought her help when trying to access information on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and mental health services in the District.
“In many cases I was the only person that these students and families felt comfortable sharing these critical experiences with and I shutter at the thought that they may have never had anyone to tell them to if I hadn’t been there,” says Sanchez. “Whether that be because I spoke their language and looked like them or because we have faced similar experiences, I was grateful that they trusted me. But I am constantly wondering how many stories our Latinx students and their families would be empowered to tell if there were more Latinx teachers to tell them to.”
Latinx students attested to the special bond between them and Latinx teachers. Rosa Martínez, a student at Roosevelt High School, for example, finds solace in school, and her science teacher, Ms. Rodriguez, is a big reason for that. Martínez admires Rodriguez, calling her “a very strong Latina.” Martínez emigrated from El Salvador when she was 15 years old because her family feared gangs and violence. She connects with Rodriguez because she teaches in both English and Spanish. Rodriguezeven encourages Martínez in Spanish—“Muchacha, ponte filas,” she’ll say—which brings a smile to her student.
“Latino teachers are more than teachers. They are friends,” says Martinez. “When you come from our country you feel like you cannot talk to anybody … But a Spanish-speaking teacher, you can feel more comfortable. That’s why I feel like Ms. Rodriguez is more than my teacher. She’s my counselor, she’s my friend.”
What’s lost when Latinx educators are unaccounted for: language. For some parents, a loss of language means a loss of culture. “There are kids who cannot speak Spanish. The only Spanish they speak is at home, but by the time they leave school speaking English all day, they do not want to speak Spanish,” one parent laments in Spanish, her native language. “You are Latino, you have to speak Spanish.”
D.C.’s growing Latinx population is not reflected in the city’s education workforce. This is why teacher advocates with EmpowerEd decided to focus on recruiting and retaining Latinx educators in this year’s campaign. Immigrants from Latin American countries grew from 31,400 to 37,100 between 2000 and 2012–2016—an increase of 18 percent—according to a report from the Urban Institute. Many reside in Ward 1 neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant.
There isn’t much research on the effects Latinx educators have on Latinx students. The research that does exist, however, shows positive outcomes. Two recent studies suggest an increased number of Latinx teachers correlated with an increased number of Latinx students enrolled in gifted programs and in STEM courses.
Teacher advocates argue that the existing evidence—anecdotal or otherwise—means the Bowser administration and the Council need to prioritize this issue. They’ve offered various recommendations for how to improve Latinx representation in the education workforce in their EmpowerEd report.
“I think the biggest thing we can do is two things: One is increase the diversity of representation in policy,” says EmpowerEd executive director and founder Scott Goldstein. “The State Board of Education, the City Council, the senior leaders in DCPS and the Public Charter School Board—zero Latinos.”
While every official will say diversity is important, no one is concentrating on Latinx representation in education, the thinking goes. Perhaps Latinx representation in leadership could nudge others into prioritizing this issue and correcting the disparity.
“The ‘Grow Your Own Program’ I think is the biggest difference maker. If we can start giving scholarships to D.C. students so they can go and study to become teachers, if they commit to teaching in D.C., we can make sure they don’t graduate with debt and they can get good jobs as teachers,” Goldstein adds.
There are few “grow your own” programs, like one out of American University. But EmpowerEd is calling for more investment. While D.C. does recruit Latinx educators—DCPS recruits potential teachers from Puerto Rico, for example—teacher advocates at the town hall argued it is not enough, nor are recruitment efforts coordinated. They argued investments in “grow your own” programs could be the start of meaningful recruitment.
The report also asks school officials to investigate and publicly report on the existing certification barriers for Latinx educators. Anecdotally, many at the town hall said language barriers around testing are a big problem. Barriers vary and are complicated because many educators are immigrants. One parent shared that she was a teacher in her home country and would like to be one here, but she is a cleaner now. Others around her empathized as she told her story. International credentials almost never transfer over.
Another problem educators encounter has to do with U.S. visas. Right now, individual schools are fronting the costs associated with work visas. A principal at one public school told Goldstein that his school will have to pay $2,400 for a teacher’s H-1B visa, a hefty sum because of expedited processing. Part of this sum will have to come out of the school’s professional development fund. DCPS told the principal, according to Goldstein, that if the school can’t pay the expedited processing fee, it could be passed onto the teacher.
City Paper reached out to the mayor’s office and DCPS for comment on its efforts to recruit and retain Latinx educators but a spokesperson deferred to comments Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee made during a Twitter town hall on Wednesday. “DCPS is intentional about recruiting Latinx educators, partnering with universities, and other global organizations,” he wrote. When questioned about whether DCPS would allocate funds to individual schools for visas, Ferebee added: “We are reviewing our ability to provide work visas, and will continue to work with schools to ensure our teachers are representative of the students they serve.”