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As a Spanish-English bilingual teacher at Gladstone Elementary School, Susana Elizarraraz found herself serving as a resource for Spanish-speaking students and families.
“Being of the same demographic and a similar background as my students, it kind of opened the door for me to support them in other ways that weren’t always necessarily academic,” she said.
Elizarraraz and a school secretary — the only other fully Spanish-English bilingual staff member — ending up translating for students and also became contacts for Spanish-speaking families.
“They knew I was a teacher that spoke Spanish. And so whenever they needed something clarified, or they had a question, they’d pop up in my classroom. And so, happily, I would translate and do that work. But as you can imagine, that adds to what’s already a heavy workload for teachers,” Elizarraraz said.
She was even called on to help with issues outside of school, such as immigration and social services. Families would ask her to recommend lawyers or how to access food stamps for eligible children in a family with some undocumeted members.
Eva Santiago said that is a common experience for Latinx people in education.
“I feel like Latino staff feels this moral obligation to do what we need to do, regardless if we’re going to get credit for it, whether everybody’s going to acknowledge it,” she said.
Santiago is the program coordinator for Plaza Comunitaria, a collaboration between Kansas City Public Schools and the Mexican Consulate that offers English classes for parents and workshops on topics like academics, health and wellness, behavioral health, and social-emotional needs. She originally joined KCPS as a parent-teacher liaison.
She said that when she was paid hourly and not allowed to work overtime, she would sometimes stay anyway to help families in crisis.
“The fulfillment you get in the job outweighs those different experiences,” Santiago said.
Elizarraraz hesitates to call the assistance she provided a workload or even a responsibility, because she did it willingly. She has yet to meet a Latinx teacher who wouldn’t do the same. But logistically, it was another thing to do “when teachers already have so much on our plate,” she said.
Elizarraraz knows now that she isn’t alone in her experience. Latinx teachers often feel that way, especially if they’re the only one in their specific school, she said. It can be one factor that makes it more difficult to stay in the profession.
Combatting that sense of isolation is one major strategy of the Latinx Education Collaborative, a nonprofit where Elizarraraz now works after leaving her classroom teaching job to accept the position. It seeks to increase the number of Latinx teachers working in the Kansas City area by supporting both recruitment and retention.
A lack of Latinx teachers
As things stand, the number of Latinx educators is low. According to a landscape analysis from the collaborative published earlier this year, only 1% of public school teachers in the metro area are Latinx.
On the Kansas side of the metro, about 19% of students are Latinx, while less than 1% of teachers are.
On the Missouri side, 11.8% of students are Latinx compared to 1.4% of teachers.
The percentage of Black students on either side of the state line also outpaces the percentage of Black teachers.
While schools did not provide a retention rate for teachers of color or Latinx teachers specifically, the analysis found a correlation between high teacher turnover and a higher percentage of students and teachers of color in specific areas.
A study published more recently from the Latinx Education Collaborative found there isn’t an increased number of teachers of color coming down the pipeline. From 2014-2018, the percentage enrollment of students of color in teacher education programs has stayed relatively stagnant in both Kansas and Missouri.
In Kansas, the percentage of Latinx students in teacher preparation programs grew from 5.1% in 2014 to 6.4%, while the percentage of Black students in those programs stayed at 2.9%.
In Missouri, the Latinx percentage went from 2% to 2.7%, while the Black percentage decreased from 5.3% to 4.6%.
The importance of teacher diversity
Those numbers are concerning because studies show teacher diversity has a positive impact on students, said Edgar Palacios, president and CEO of the Latinx Education Collaborative.
Teachers of the same race and culture as students can sometimes “recognize challenges that may not be readily discernible to non teachers of color” while also setting higher expectations for those students and refusing to give up on them, Palacios said.
When she started working for KCPS, Santiago said she would sometimes have a casual interaction with a parent or student and end up solving a problem caused by a language barrier. She would get angry thinking about what would have happened if she weren’t there.
“How do those things get fixed?” she asked. “Or how do those things even get acknowledged?”
Santiago said she also felt lonely when she didn’t have other Latinx teachers or staff to share her experience, especially when well-meaning coworkers overlooked important issues out of ignorance.
An example she returns to is an administrator who asked a student if he had filled out the federal student aid application form. Despite knowing the teen for years, the administrator didn’t realize he was undocumented, which would affect financial aid eligibility.
When Santiago confronted the administrator, he said it wasn’t his job to know students’ immigration status and it wasn’t something he could ask.
“I said, ‘It is your job, and you should know. And because you don’t know, not only are you making him feel uncomfortable, but you can’t even help him and you’re not addressing any of his needs,’” Santiago said. “And it was really awkward.”
Having a diverse teaching staff has benefits for all students, Palacios said, helping them see the world in a different way and improving outcomes for everyone.
A July 14 report from Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s Commission on Racial Justice and Equity recommended improving teacher diversity, citing research showing Black students who were randomly assigned to at least one black teacher in lower grades had higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance.
It also cites a study on the cognitive, social and emotional benefits of diversity for all students.
The report suggests improving “grow your own” teacher programs, where districts encourage students to return as teachers, as well as creating more flexible teacher education programs that are accessible to nontraditional students.
Santiago said it is important to have Latinx people represented in leadership positions because people naturally pay more attention to issues they have experienced. She sometimes asks students to imagine how things would change if, for example, a district leader were an undocumented immigrant who had become a citizen.
Strategies to increase Latinx representation
The Latinx Education Collaborative works in three specific niches, Palacios said.
One is to expose young people to the idea of becoming teachers. The group has developed a “design thinking” curriculum to have sixth-graders brainstorm ideas to solve the low representation of people of color in teaching.
“We want to remind them that they, too, can be great teachers, and they should consider teaching as an opportunity,” Palacios said.
Another focuses on recruitment support for the many teacher education programs in the area, including nontraditional ones like Teach for America and City Year. The collaborative seeks to help those groups diversify their recruiting and also helps students figure out which program would be the best fit.
Finally, the collaborative seeks to improve Latinx teacher retention by supporting existing educators.
After six years of teaching sixth grade math in the neighborhood where she grew up, Elizarraraz was hired as vice president of educator supports for the collaborative.
Her role focuses on retention of existing teachers. They ask her for help with anything from getting dry erase markers to trying for a promotion.
A major part of that work is helping educators connect with one another and develop a support system even if they might not know other Latinx educators at their schools.
“A lot of the feedback that we get from teachers on what they need is community,” Elizarraraz said. “Latinx educators, especially here in Kansas City, are few and far between. And that ‘far between’ part really takes a toll on our teachers.”
For school districts to get better at making Latinx teachers feel like they belong, leaders need to face the facts, even if they feel like they are being inclusive, Palacios said.
“If your retention rates for teachers of color are terrible, if you’re not exploring the ‘why’ behind that, and you’re not exploring what your responsibility is in that number, then it’s probably a sign you’re not doing the work that you need to be doing in order to create the space of belonging,” he said.