Kevin: Hispanic and Latino communities represent the second largest ethnic group in the United States. And they account for more than a quarter of our nation's students. But does our education system reflect the rich diversity that exists within our schools? Are English language learners getting the support they need to thrive inside the classroom and out? And are Hispanic and Latino cultures being adequately represented in the push for greater equality in our curriculum? This is "What I Want To Know."
Kevin: Today, I'm joined by Amalia Chamorro to explore these questions and more. Amalia Chamorro immigrated with her family from Peru when she was just nine years old. Today, she advocates for better educational opportunities for Hispanic and Latino children. As director of education policy at UnidosUS, Amalia works to close achievement gaps and advance equity for Hispanic and Latino students at both the federal and state levels. Amalia, thank you so much for joining. You know, I'm very proud of your work. First, I want to talk about your background. You emigrated from Peru with your family when you were nine, so talk a little bit about that.
Amalia: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I just remember being super excited. My parents had just gotten the visas finally after many years for the whole family for myself, my three siblings, and my two parents. And they had been teacher ambassadors in the U.S. in Ohio back in the 70s. So, it was always their dream to come to the U.S. and bring their whole family and give us the education that they really wanted us to have and the opportunities because Peru was a pretty unstable place in the late 80s. I remember being pretty anxious because I did not speak the English language and I didn't know how the U.S. education system operated. But I have wonderful bilingual teachers who helped me with the language and wonderful friends who also spoke Spanish and helped me along the way.
Kevin: When did it hit you some of the real challenges your fellow immigrants were facing from a family maintenance and integration point of view?
Amalia: I remember, you know, many of my peers sort of being either held back or not progressing at the same pace or rate that I was, but also I had the fortune that my parents could advocate for me, right? And that they had the insight to advocate for me before the principals and my teachers, because I remember there were at least a couple of times where I was placed in classes that my parents felt were not actually at my level. And they went and spoke to the school principals and lo and behold, I was placed in the correct higher-level class the next day. But many parents that come from immigrant backgrounds may not have the feeling that they can actually go and advocate the issue of language access, there's cultural differences. And without having school staff who are willing to engage with those parents in a meaningful and an authentic way, many of my peers were unfortunately left behind.
Kevin: It begs the question, how much of what you observed among your peers recognize in sort of the special circumstances you had with your own parents, how much of what you observed influenced your decision to pursue a career as an advocate for the less fortunate?
Amalia: It had a huge impact on me because as an observer, and as a fellow student, I was seeing students get tracked, teachers not having high expectations of them, students not receiving the targeted support that they needed to stay on track and get ahead and continue their education, lack of counselors to be able to provide students with advice and counseling, not only academically, but also in terms of dealing with family issues. And so, to me, that really spoke a lot about the shortcomings of the education system. And the power that influencing policy at the highest levels of government at the federal government and state government, and even at the local level could have in terms of affecting meaningful change for students.
Kevin: So, tell me what you're doing now in your role at Unidos? It is a very important role, I'm very familiar with the organization, but specifically, what is your day-to-day life like in terms of advocating for these students?
Amalia: First of all, I'm just grateful and I feel very privileged to be in a position where I am leading education policy at all levels from early childhood to K-12 and higher education for the largest Latino civil rights organization in the U.S. That is a professional dream come true, but it's also something that is very personal to me. And my day-to-day really varies, which is what keeps things challenging and exciting is that every day there's a new battle or fight, right, to achieve education equity for students that have been historically marginalized in the system. And so, I do a lot of work at the federal level in terms of working with Congress members and staff on the Hill to influence policy, budgetary decisions, as well as with the administration at the department of education in issuing guidance and putting forth administrative policies that are going to help the most students in need. And all of that is especially critical at this time when we have been in the pandemic really for a lot longer than people thought a year and a half, we're about to enter the third school year under the pandemic. And in fact, many schools have already started. And that's really elevated the inequities that already existed in the education system and the achievement gaps that have widened as a result of the last year and a half.
Kevin: What are the needs that must be addressed in our schools to make sure that the diverse needs of learners that you represent are being met?
Amalia: There's definitely a need for equitable funding and resources to make sure that the schools and the students with the highest need, and that have the highest rates of poverty actually receive the most funding.
Kevin: So, Amalia, let me unpack that because I know what you're talking about, but a lot of times people say it was not about money, but what do you mean by equitable funding because aren’t school's funded the same anyway or not?
Amalia: That's not actually how it plays out. And we have a lot of data that shows that even though funding is supposed to go towards Title 1 schools, which are the schools with the highest population of students with poverty. When you see that the resources that come from the federal government and that trickled down to the state and local levels, it's the schools with the most privileged populations with the most resources that actually garnered the most. And we have long fought for transparency in terms of how that funding is allocated to make sure that it's actually targeted to support the students with the most needs. And that includes English learners most of whom are Latino English learners like myself, most of whom are Latino. And for whom there has been an under-investment and targeted support at the federal level, the state, and local level as well.
Kevin: I lived this for so many years in my public life is hard for people to understand not just the federal funding, but most of the funding for schools come from the state about 90% in most instances. And most states have interesting funding formulas for education often tied to taxes. So, communities that have a large tax base or a significant income base, they often get the higher funded. Schools are supposed to be equalized by way of Title 1. But still, when it flows down, studies have shown that for minority populations, kids who happen to be black, Hispanic, born in poverty, those schools still get less. How can we change that? And this is an issue that has existed for many years.
Amalia: I think part of that is who is making these decisions, right? In terms of allocating and targeting those funds and that's the district administration's school boards at the local level. And I think what we need to see more of is diverse decision-makers, right? People who come from the communities that are impacted, that are able to be in a position of authority to be able to have a say in those decisions. And oftentimes, that is not the case.
Kevin: And you've championed that. In fact, I think you've given an example, states like Arizona where half the student population happens to be Hispanic or Latino and only 10% of the policymakers come from that demographic. How can we change that? And what should we be pressing for to ensure better representation, to assure that there's equitable distribution of resources?
Amalia: Well, there's a lot of things both from the ground up, right? And from the grassroots and also from the grasstops. At the grassroots level, we have a network of 300 affiliates. These are community-based organizations that are formal partners of Unidos. And we do a lot of work with them to develop and cultivate leadership skills, but also in terms of being able to encourage them, right? To use their community networks, their real-life expertise, to be able to throw their name in the hat and go after these positions and also to educate and inform our community about the importance of having representation not only in running for office, for Congress, or even at the state level, but at the local level where a lot of these critical decisions make a real impact and difference.
Kevin: Are today's teachers properly trained to be able to assist with the academic needs and the immersion of Hispanic, Latino learners in schools?
Amalia: So, that's definitely an area where we could do better. Even during the pandemic when schools pivoted pretty much overnight to remote learning, the U.S. Department of Education had already issued a report that found that English learner teachers had actually received less professional development in remote instruction. And obviously, that's something that had an impact as schools switched to remote. So, not only professional development, but also in terms of preparation in teaching programs and credentials for English learner teachers, but also for all general teachers because most teachers will see an English learner students in their lifetime at some point in the classroom. And so, it's really important that teacher preparation programs also institute those kinds of practices that are linguistically and culturally irrelevant into their practice.
Kevin: What about these dual immersion programs? What do you think needs to be done to give them more of a robust opportunity to help kids?
Amalia: With dual immersion programs, it's really interesting because there's actually a lot of support for dual language programs. But at the same time, if you look at the data of who are the students that are actually enrolled in these dual-language programs, a lot of times, it's not the students who actually need them or could benefit the most, including English learners. So, this is the case, for example, in Arizona where we have been trying to repeal a proposition that voters passed two decades ago that really restricted bilingual education. Now, dual immersion programs do exist in some form, but many of those slots are very limited and only a few of English learners have actually been able to access them. And so, there is this issue with dual immersion programs, just the model and concept themselves, but it has become an access issue as to we have no problem with English-speaking students who are trying to learn Mandarin or French, but if it comes to students who are native Spanish speakers or who may speak another language at home, they do not have the same level of access to these dual immersion programs.
Kevin: Oh my, there's so many roads I could go down on that one and I won't because it's just... it is not surprising, but I didn't know it was that significant an issue. Let me ask you one other question about the academics, because this idea of assessments and standardized tests and how you measure a student's progress for immigrant students, students that come from other countries like you did, if they don't have the support, it may take them a little time to get acclimated. And this sort of above the line below the line measurement based on, you know, one test or a certain period of time, it's not always fair to the students. And sometimes it doesn't always recognize some growth. So, what is your view about how we should look at standardized tests as it relates to this population of students?
Amalia: You know, standardized tests are one way to measure progress in student success. We have actually been advocating for native language assessments, which are encouraged under federal law. And the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is the overarching K-12 federal law, but there is no federal funding necessarily to help states either adopt these programs or scale them up. We have been working in the state of Florida, for example, where you have not only a significant population of Latino, Spanish-speaking students and immigrants families coming from places like Venezuela, for example, but you also have a significant Haitian Creole population. And so, we have actually been working in partnership to try to pass a bill there where the state would adopt the native language assessments program, whereas students that are native Spanish speakers or native Creole speakers can actually take those assessments in their native language, which would give us a more meaningful read and accurate read in terms of what level they are actually at academically in math and science in particular. And so, just making sure that we have an NLA program would help to both put a better spotlight on where these students are at to make sure that they are properly placed and that we are making sure that they receive the support and proper instruction to continue their education.
Kevin: It seems to me that policymakers should be adjusting some of their historical views on this issue to meet the growing population of the students that need help. So, Amalia, this is what I really wanna know. If you had to share one important message to policymakers about the needs of Hispanic and Latino students, what would that be?
Amalia: Well, what I would say first and foremost, is that Latino students are worth making an investment on because we are the future workforce of the U.S. and we are growing in numbers. And it's important to make sure that we have an education trajectory that is going to contribute to the future of this country.
Kevin: Well, Amalia Chamorro, I appreciate your work. Thank you for joining us. This has been a terrific interview, thank you.
Amalia: Thank you so much for having me.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Also, I encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #wiwtk on social media. That's #wiwtk on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Amalia Chamorro is the Director of Education Policy at Unidos US. She emigrated with her family from Peru when she was just nine years old. Now, she advocates for better educational opportunities for Hispanic and Latino children. In her role, Amalia works to close achievement gaps and advance equity for Hispanic and Latino students at both the federal and state level.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.