As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, I’m asking you to think about what that actually means. Specifically, I want you to think about the thousands of young Latinos who are in our schools right now, learning a new language, a new educational system, and a new culture.
Kids in the classroom who are learning English as a second language aren’t just struggling to learn a new way to communicate. These kids are trying to figure out what it really means to be an American.
I know because I was one of them.
My parents are immigrants from El Salvador. Spanish is my first language, and during my first few years in the public school system in New York City, I was classified as an English Language Learner (ELL). Up until the third grade, I was taking classes to learn the language of my new home — just like tens of thousands of kids across Connecticut are doing right now.
But to understand the unique challenges of a kid dealing with a new environment and a completely new language, it’s important to consider what the parents of ELL students are going through as well.
Many of these parents — mine included — are learning English themselves. At the same time, they’re also struggling to understand the unfamiliar U.S. school system. Many are simply unable to relate to or address the unique challenges that their English Language Learner (ELL) is facing.
As well intentioned as they were, my parents simply lacked the command of the English language they needed in order to understand the school system and advocate on my behalf. My behavior and performance in school soon became a reflection of this isolation, and it would take years of interventions to get me back on track.
Things don’t look much better inside the schools either. In 2014-2015, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) reported that there were more than 34,000 ELL students statewide with Spanish speakers accounting for 70 percent of those kids.
And that same report suggests that there simply aren’t enough quality teachers or programs designed to meet the needs of those students. This is appalling and unfair to kids who are struggling to learn. These kids are full of potential, but their chances for academic success are stifled simply because of a system that’s set up to fail them.
But there is hope. Many Connecticut students have found that hope in their charter school, a unique learning environment where many English Language Learners get the extra support they need for themselves and for their families. These are the types of services that very well could have made a difference for me, a driving force as to why I do the work that I do.
Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich, for example, serves more ELL students than its host district, and students there outperformed those in their host district in math and English Language Arts last year.
Great Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport opened its doors three years ago after the State Department of Education called specifically for more charter schools to serve ELL students. Through innovative programs and support for students and their families, Great Oaks is making strides in closing the achievement gap between ELL students and those who speak only English at home.
Path Academy in Windham works with over-age, under-credited students, and serves more Hispanic and more ELL students than its host district. These are young people who already have or likely would drop out of high school. Path works tirelessly to get these students on track to graduate, with built in structures to support the unique needs of ELL learners.
Here in Connecticut, Latinos made up 15 percent of the state’s population in 2014 and the numbers are growing. The latest U.S. Census Bureau projections see the Hispanic share of the U.S. population swelling to 28.6 percent in 2060.
And the major driving force behind this growth? Hispanic youth. Close to six out of every ten Hispanics in the U.S. are millennials — defined as age 18 to 33 — or younger, which is why we must invest in services to help those youth along the way. Our future really depends on it.
Our charters are working hard, but there are still so many ELL kids out there who could benefit from school choice to meet their unique needs –a choice that only equitable and fair funding could afford them.
It is my hope that our lawmakers take this to heart, and do whatever is necessary to make sure Connecticut’s public charter schools can continue to enrich the lives of ELL students and their families.
Jose Alfaro is the Connecticut Advocacy Manager for the Northeast Charter Schools Network.