I remember entering school in Grand Rapids, Michigan as a kindergartener. There were no Hispanic or bilingual teachers to help me overcome the language differences I encountered. We spoke Spanish at home. Many people think that this is just a problem for immigrants and that somehow we should go back to where we came from or just “Speak English…you’re in America now!” Well, interestingly enough I was born in Weslaco, Texas where my mother was born and my father was born in Chicago, Illinois. I know that makes me American. I never expected that I would encounter a system so resistant to accommodation for my family’s language and cultural differences, but I did and somehow survived to complete my studies. The closest role models in the teaching ranks of the schools were Italian American and Irish American teachers who understood the language issues and cultural assimilation issues my family experienced.
For the most part, White teachers told us to “Stop speaking Spanish at home…speak American… (English)…change your Spanish names to English …and fit in!” Perhaps these experiences have helped me to understand the emotional hardships of modern-day immigrants. We too, worked in menial jobs growing up harvesting crops in nearby Nunica, Hudsonville, Sparta, and as far away as Traverse City. I remember my escape from the fields to work in restaurants locally and later in the factories while attending school. These experiences made me well rounded by the time I reached high school. I left home at 16 and continued attending high school until graduating from Grand Rapids Central High School.
I hadn’t expected to go on to college but was recruited by a Chicano Counselor to Eastern Michigan University and the rest is history! I completed my degree and began working in the Grand Rapids Public Schools to change the system. I went on to earn my Master’s Degree at GVSU and Doctorate Degree from Wayne State University. As an educator I have been at the forefront of several movements to change the school system from within. Change has been slow to come and in recent years pushed back to the philosophies of yesteryear.
As I near retirement age, I often find myself at odds with individuals that seek to dismantle the progress we have made in hiring bilingual teachers and implementing programs to curb the horrendous Hispanic drop-out rate in the public schools. My two older sisters and my brother dropped out of school before the 9th grade from the Grand Rapids Public Schools. That left me, my younger brother and sister to navigate the system and graduate from high school. Therefore, the math worked out to 50% drop out rate for my family. Not much has changed in Grand Rapids according to the district’s dropout data for Hispanic children since…in fact, our drop-out rate is actually higher…nearly 75% and we are worse than Detroit and Flint pubic school districts.
A group of concerned Hispanic leaders met with Superintendent Bernard Taylor to express our concerns and were met with arrogance, condescending attacks and lack of respect for the elder leaders who expressed their concerns about the lack of progress of our district in meeting the needs of children learning English. The district is cutting back programs and in some areas has failed to meet state and federal laws regarding the education of ELL children in the classroom. We pointed out these concerns and challenged Supt. Taylor to address these issues. Dr. Taylor failed to take an opportunity to receive input about the concerns of the community which he had asked for in public meetings. He failed to be a problem-solver.
I am convinced that the Hispanic Community of Michigan will not meet success in our public schools classrooms until there is real reform. The statistics demonstrate that Hispanic children enrolled in private religious schools and in Charter schools are having greater success completing high school. The recent demographic statistics regarding urban flight to suburban schools by Black and Hispanic students also suggest that Hispanic parents realize there is a better standard of education in the suburbs. Wyoming, Godfrey Lee, Godwin Heights, Kentwood, Comstock Park schools all have experienced dramatic increases in Hispanic enrollments over the past five years. There is a lesson in this …Hispanic parents have options too! We can leave and take our children elsewhere if urban public schools continue to fail the majority of our children.
As a seasoned educator and community activist, I recommend that Hispanic parents consider enrolling their children in private schools or public charter schools where there are opportunities to do so. Many Hispanic parents live in the city and send their students to suburban schools by using friends and relatives’ addresses. Many Hispanic parents have moved and continue planning to move to the suburbs as a solution. I also recommend that we Hispanic educators who have the contacts and the knowledge base, expand the number of Charter schools with a Hispanic American centered theme in order to insure that more of our children achieve an education.
Public schools that cannot meet national or state standards should be closed or re-organized. Superintendents who can’t provide safe and orderly schools or provide “appropriate instruction” for ELL children to succeed should move on. I have reached new decisions on my next course of action. I strongly support the movement for a statewide demonstration of Hispanics to boycott our schools on the fourth Friday count day in September! Perhaps when districts lose the millions of dollars they reap as financial gain that we produce for them, they will begin to listen and act to properly educate our children.
Dr. José Angel Flores is the publisher of The Community Voice/La Voz Bilingual Magazine, www.lavozweb.com in Grand Rapids, Michigan.