By Richard Jones, El Hispanic News
Portland, OR — The slogan “Empowering Tomorrow’s Leaders” set the theme for the Oregon Latino Agenda for Action (OLAA) 2012 Summit on Oct. 6 at Concordia University in northeast Portland. The day-long event touched on many subjects, but the central target called for providing better education for minority students.
During the lunch hour, Gov. John Kitzhaber warned the 150 attendees of “the tragedy of the education gap.” The current scholastic differences between students of color and white students will, as today’s children become adults, lead to differences in the standards of living between ethnic groups.
“We need to invest in education,” Kitzhaber said.
“We are going to see that the next legislature is going [to provide money] where it is needed,” the governor added, “as opposed to scattering it [around].”
A panel with ideas
Earlier in the day, a six-member panel assessed the status of “Latinos and Education in Oregon.” Most panelists targeted the shortcomings of current educational programs, and offered strategies and tactics to improve the situation.
Leading off the panel, Ben Canon charged that, “Schools are under-funded at every level.” He went on to say, “Inadequate funding has been alive as long as I can remember.”
Canon, Gov. Kitzhaber’s education policy advisor, said Oregon needs to focus on spending money better. In particular, he claimed that education funds are not spent strategically.
Canon suggested that school districts should “make it easier to place skilled bilingual teachers.”
Despite the shortcomings of some school systems, Canon said he still believes that the 40-40-20 program will meet its goals by 2025. The program aims to have 40 percent of students earning four-year college degrees, another 40 percent getting two-year degrees and the remaining 20 percent to have high school diplomas.
Martín González, a Portland Public Schools Board of Education member, had several objections to the English as a Second Language (ESL) program in Portland schools, calling the current ESL approach the wrong way to reach children.
“Educators should assess what children bring to school,” he said, suggesting that teachers should devise programs to meet the needs of children.
A good ESL program, he said, should take more than “just right now” approach; it should have a comprehensive viewpoint.
Like Canon, González said the public’s money could be spent more productively than it now is. “We need to organize right away,” he said.
Maria Chávez-Haroldson said schools should recruit families to participate in improving ESL programs. Chávez-Haroldson is the associate director of the Center for Latino Studies and Engagement at Oregon State University.
She said schools should not only schedule meetings at the convenience of parents, but should ask parents, “What would you like to discuss?”
Nichole Maher noted that changing cultures puts an enormous stress on children. Maher, president and CEO of the Native American Youth and Family Center, said that in introducing children to a new culture, schools should not contribute to the loss of their root culture. Teachers should be aware of the values that Latin American families can contribute to the classroom, she said.
Parents should meet and become acquainted with their children’s teachers, Maher added. Moreover, “Parents need to ask hard questions at schools,” she said, “but they should have [an alternate] plan prepared.”
Before retiring, Carlos Pérez worked for 31 years for the Hillsboro School District, with 10 years as deputy superintendent.
Pérez drew a dismal picture of the education ESL students receive. “Schools are not meeting the needs of Latino kids,” he said flatly. “Only 4 percent of educators are Latino, while 21 percent of students are Latino.”
Moreover, he added, our white counterparts are not hiring many Latinos. Pérez also charged that schools have hidden criteria that they can employ to claim that any particular teacher is “not fit for that school.”
Even if bilingual teachers get hired, González added, their jobs are not stable. “When cuts come, the last hired is the first fired,” he said. “Hiring and firing practices are unbalanced. These defeat [keeping] minority teachers in the system. We need accountability at all levels.”
Pérez asserted that parents need to push to get answers about education programs. In public meetings, parents should be there and advocate for their community.
Dan Ryan, a former member of the Portland Public School Board and current CEO of All Hands Raised, suggested that educators tend to talk too much and listen too little.
“We don’t know how to check our egos at the door,” he said.
Moreover, Ryan said that taxpayers are not seeing many results from ESL programs. He reasoned that if we don’t show results, the public is not eager to pay more taxes.
Latino political voices
The summit offered a keynote address from Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected/Appointed Officials.
Vargas reviewed the growing Latino impact in elections across the country. The situation became serious about 20 years ago, spurred by such anti-Latino measures as California Proposition 187 in 1994. More recent issues such as Arizona’s S.B. 10-70, he believed, will inspire more Latinos to register to vote.
Vargas noted that although such actions as Proposition 187 draw Latinos to the Democratic side of the political spectrum, Republicans with their anti-Fidel Castro speeches have brought many Cuban immigrants to the conservative side of American politics. In short, both major parties, as well as many minority parties, are happy to see Latinos walking through their doors.
Vargas encouraged Latinos to become active in the political party of their choice.