El Sueno (The Dream)

National PTA’s Every Child in Focus is centered on strengthening family engagement in schools by celebrating important cultural distinctions and achievements, while highlighting solutions to potential educational issues. This September, we turn our focus to Hispanic families and the unique challenges they face in supporting student success.


Elizabeth Ysla Leight,
President-Elect, Maryland PTA

I often wear a PTA pin that depicts a child’s hand cradled inside that of an adult. It reminds me that I once had a dream that someone helped me to achieve. As a first generation Latina who grew up toiling in the fields as a seasonal migrant farm worker with limited means and limited access to educational resources, I should have been just another statistic. The odds that I would have completed high school were slim, and truthfully, I did not. The odds that I would then, as a single parent with a GED, could have completed college and earn a law degree from an Ivy League law school were even more remote. When I speak to students during Law Day programs, I tell them not to give up on their dreams because they, like me, are not just another statistic.

The 2010 U.S. Census revealed that Hispanics accounted for more than half of the U.S. population increase over the last decade, exceeding estimates in most states as they crossed a new census milestone: 50 million, or 1 in 6 Americans. This big demographic change has had an impact on our educational system as well. In 2011, more than 12.4 million Hispanics were enrolled in the nation’s public schools. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, overall Hispanic students make up nearly one-quarter (23.9%) of the nation’s public school enrollment, and for the first time, one-quarter (25%) of public elementary school children were Hispanic. By 2036, Hispanics are projected to compose one-third of the nation’s children ages 3 to 17.

In light of these demographic realities, National PTA has dedicated September as the “Month of The Hispanic Child” as part of their “Every Child in Focus” effort.  My PTA pin, an important reminder of the dreams I realized with the help of others, also reminds me that it is our purpose in PTA to help all children achieve their dreams.  Opportunities have never been better for Hispanic families to help their children receive a great education in the public school system. Every step of the way on my journey, there was someone there stretching out a hand to help me; today, that is what we do as members of the PTA. As a PTA member and parent, I know firsthand that reaching down to the family structure to encourage student success is vitally important.

National PTA recognizes the shift in population demographics that are impacting our schools and Hispanic children. Are we ready to welcome Hispanic students and their families into our schools? Or are we missing the mark by disengaging one of the largest populations in our schools because we lack an understanding of their culture? Only through engagement with Hispanic families and extended members of the family can you raise awareness of the student’s needs. Family engagement coupled with advocacy at the local, state and national level, is the great equalizer that raises all boats and brings positive outcomes and positive change for Hispanic students.

How is this done? First, recognize the culture and respect it. Don’t try to mold Hispanic families into your schools’ culture just because “we have always done it this way.”  Plan Hispanic forums that feature Spanish language facilitators and bring along PTA Spanish language materials provided by National PTA. I organized in my son’s elementary school, where all multicultural families were encouraged to put their customs and special ethnic foods on display while children showcased a wax museum of their heroes. The cafeteria was bustling with extended members of the family of all ages, each telling their own story of fulfilling the American dream. PTA hit a home run by reaching family members and accepting their cultural differences in an environment that encouraged discussion and sharing.

Other steps that PTAs can take include teaching Hispanic students and families how to fill out college applications, ACTs or SATs, FAFSA, etc. These tasks are something that may be common place in other families, but because these students may be the first to ever attend college or even to graduate high school, they need to learn.

Our school systems also need to understand the unique nature of the Hispanic community. In many communities, of the 4 million Hispanic students in public schools whose primary language is not English, 75% percent were born in the United States. In the same vein, there are many children in our schools who are “culturally Hispanic” but do not speak Spanish. Yet, the community’s grip on their custom and cultures are something to honor and respect. There is still too little training, certification, curriculum and support for teachers working with students with language challenges.

PTA can take advocacy inside the school by recognizing the cultural shift and creating a Memorandum of Understanding with your school system. Meet with your school’s Social Studies coordinator and create a one-page Hispanic Culture document that can be used utilized at future Hispanic Heritage programs. Finally, let’s think more creatively on how to service the needs of the migrant students who travel with their families for weeks at a time so that these students can keep up on their school work.

PTA has a unique venue to help Hispanics clear barriers to college attainment. A major reason for the small numbers of Hispanic students enrolled in college is directly related to the high incidence of drop-out rates among Hispanics. A 2009 study revealed that nearly three-quarters of all 16 to 25 year old Latino students who cut their education short during high school or failed to enroll or complete college said they did so to help support the family. This is a cultural tradition that can be addressed through family engagement and PTA is just the place to begin the dialogue. In the immigrant population, many students are being raised by a single parent or relative and there is an expectation to contribute to the family unit. Here PTA can engage families by encouraging them to play an active role in helping their students achieve. In doing so, Hispanic adults can forever alter the trajectory their students will have in life.

For those students that stay in school, academic college preparation is lacking. Latino students are less academically prepared for high school, during high school and ultimately for college. Lack of preparation is evident in lower math scores where only 12% of all Latino students scored in the top quartile of the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) reading and mathematics test. Moreover scores on the College Qualification Index indicate a 19% gap between Latino students and white students. (The study can be found here). PTA can lend a helping hand by advocating on behalf of students for adequate guidance services in the schools, adequate curriculum in secondary education and adequate level of effective English as a Second Language courses.

Hispanic students and their families place a high importance on college education. However, students often need to be coaxed out of their comfort zone to reach for their dream, el sueno. Programs that prepare, equip and motivate Hispanic youth are necessary today more than ever. We need to move from simply discussing the needs of diverse students to actively producing opportunities and solutions. The result in the lack of educational attainment has contributed to Latinos being over-represented in low-skilled occupations that pay less, with higher levels of unemployment and a greater representation on poverty rates.

Through advocacy, PTA can speak for all children with one voice, and change the current cultural curriculum in schools that fail to introduce the concept of a multicultural education. We can foster greater understanding among cultural groups to correct the omission and misrepresentation of all minority groups. We can eliminate negative stereotyping and include the history of cultural groups and their contributions. Through advocacy, PTA can speak for all children with one voice, cada nino, una voz.

Elizabeth Ysla Leight is the President-Elect of Maryland State PTA. She is a mother of three: Matthew, 12; Bianca 29 who lives in Hawaii;  and Joe, 43 who lives in Iowa with his wife Debbie and three children, Joey, Austin and Gabrielle. Elizabeth and husband David currently live in Laurel, Maryland.

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