• by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2018 •Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.

“Dearie, why don’t you just take a course in textiles or cooking?” The high school counselor had finally been corralled by a mother, who spoke no English but was determined that her daughter take advanced biology as a high school freshman. The daughter translated because the bilingual Latina counselor chose not to speak Spanish.

The mother was armed with a list of the 4×4* course titles, determined to keep her daughter on a college track. The counselor insisted the courses would be too difficult, dismissing the young lady’s high grades in middle school. The mother persisted and prevailed, while the counselor, with arms positioned on her hips like jar handles, sneered at student and parent, “I guess you want higher math also?”

If this was an exception, a non-standard-school procedure, it still would be shocking to those of us who want all our children to rightfully be considered college-material. Yet these patterns of inequity permeate our schools. The mother was undeterred by lack of money, of English or of formal education. Her daughter still must face other deterrents.

As another mother told me, “Let me decide, rather than the system that doesn’t see my child’s potential.” Too many people in schools label, stigmatize and track students, using the caveat “college is not for everyone,” while glaring at “those” children. The farther a student is seen from being middle-class, White and English-speaking, the less that student is seen as a potential college student. The same is true for students with a discipline record or “attitude problem.”

As IDRA celebrates its 45th year (42 of which I’ve been on staff, and I toast my 54th in education), the terrain we’ve traveled is marked with World War I-like barbed-wire, bomb-pock-marked indicators of college-path barriers. At times, we have given many of our schools low grades in preparing most students for college, and even lower in students entering and completing a college degree.

We, at IDRA, know that we must consistently and passionately insist that our schools see and nurture the potential in all children: especially those who’ve not been thought of as college material.

Too many teachers, administrators and counselors still equate students’ poverty, blue-collar neighborhood, ethnicity, and immigrant status with intellectual limitation and lack of potential to learn.

In 1967, my third year of teaching high school English to juniors, I heard the counselor advise my over-aged students (retained several times before they reached junior English): “Why don’t you join the military? Maybe there you’ll be good for something You sure aren’t doing well in school.” When they returned in coffins from Viet Nam, they were lauded as heroes and used as a means to recruit more into the military.

Working with schools in the southern states, from Texas to Florida and D.C., the IDRA EAC-South focuses on critical areas to support equity for all students in schools. Key ones, connected to the college access path theme of this article, are student achievement, nondiscrimination counseling methods and materials, and access, treatment and opportunity concerns.

To clear the path to higher education and valuable post-secondary opportunities, schools must ensure academic success (achievement), give clear advice and support to keep students moving toward college (counseling) and take deliberate steps to ensure access. Students must open gates, jump hurdles: the patterns and practices of inequity.

Our schools must develop their own grit and persistence to support all our students to achieve goals that are the norms for our middle-class, English-speaking White students. It’s the least we can do to support the many families persisting in difficult, low-paying jobs to support their families.

We’ve made many advances: reduced dropout rates; increased the number and diversity of students enrolling in college; and seen pockets of success in some schools and school districts where an asset (or valuing) lens has replaced a deficit point of view. Low-level manual skills are being replaced with chess clubs. In some communities, students are carrying out social justice projects with a project-based learning approach.

Dual credit courses are becoming more accessible, and students are being given the support needed to succeed and graduate with a significant number of college credits. These authentically achieved credits save time and money for students and family. What was initially a policy and practice to meet the needs of graduating seniors who already had most of their credits to graduate, is now available and accessible to a larger body of students.

Nevertheless, our families tell us, especially those who are poor, or of color, or recent immigrant, or all of the above: their school districts and schools are not informing, much less encouraging, them to consider a college track. In Texas, a shift some years ago from a required 4×4 curriculum, resulted in modified and watered-down graduation requirements, under the guise of giving students more “choices.” Tracks are now called endorsements. Some high-level courses are no longer required, Algebra II a case in point (see Page 3).

One Texas superintendent was overjoyed with all the new “choices” because, after all, those high-level courses are so difficult for “those” students. That’s why they drop out, he said. The irony is that few, if any, of those professional middle-class adults would ever see their own children taking the non-college path.

Listen to Classnotes Podcast episode: “Tracking vs. High-Quality Education for All Students”

See our bilingual handout: “Expecting Less is Not Better”

Our Education CAFE work, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, keeps us connected to families who want to have excellent neighborhood public schools. Our community organization partners have been disseminating information in family-friendly language to equip families in advocating for their children’s future.

Much more must be done. Too many teachers, administrators and counselors still equate students’ poverty, blue-collar neighborhood, ethnicity, and immigrant status with intellectual limitation and lack of potential to learn. Sadly, the “internalized oppression” in some educators that come from similar backgrounds weds the trials of their school years and their current success to make them embarrassed about their cultural roots and language. Because they are sometimes pointed to as stellar examples of someone from the barrio (or hood) who made it, they stand arrogantly over the unschooled families who approach seeking an excellent education for their children.

But families, collectively, do not give up. They are the energy, the batteries, for our advocacy at IDRA. Imperfect as any middle-class or wealthy families, our laboring, barely-hanging-on-by-their-fingernails, working-for-minimum-wage families intone:

  • Get an education so that you don’t have to suffer what I’ve gone through. Edúcate para que no tengas que sufrir por lo que he sufrido yo.
  • Education is not the total answer, but it sure can keep you out of the hot sun working with your hands for low wages. La educación no es la respuesta total, pero seguro que puede mantenerte alejado del calor del sol trabajando con tus manos por bajo sueldo.
  • I am proud of my work. Yet, I imagine you being in an air-conditioned office, wearing a business suit. Estoy orgulloso de mi trabajo. Sin embargo, me imagino que estás en una oficina con aire acondicionado, vistiendo un traje elegante.
  • We want you to have more choices than we did. Really. Queremos que tengas más opciones que nosotros. De verdad.

Schools, err on the side of considering all children fit for college. Heed the dreams of the families.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is an IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at aurelio.montemayor@idra.org.

[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]