WASHINGTON – The Maryland high school where Donna Hunter teaches has changed from overwhelmingly white to almost 75 percent minority students over the years, but the curriculum has changed little, she said.
“I think. . .to teach the student population the same way we did 25 years ago, and maintain the same level of expectations is ridiculous,” said Hunter, an English teacher at Montgomery County’s John F. Kennedy High School.
“I’m not saying they can’t achieve excellence,” but that teachers need better training on strategies of how to teach the new population, Hunter said.
“We can’t just teach about dead white men all the time,” said Hunter, one of nine panelists at a National Education Association forum on the needs of the nation’s Hispanic students.
The panel of speakers — ranging from a senior adviser to former Education Secretary Richard Riley to a member of the NEA’s executive committee — emphasized the importance of strengthening public schools across the country.
“Ninety percent of our (Hispanic) children will stay in the public school system,” said Anthony Colon, the vice president for education at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic non-profit. “We should look for comprehensive models to address these issues.”
Panelists discussed socioeconomic difficulties faced by Hispanic families and the “myth” that Hispanic parents are not concerned with their children’s education.
“There’s a reason why so many parents have a difficult time getting involved,” said Colon. He and other panelists said the language barrier that many Hispanic parents face keeps them from getting involved because they are embarrassed to speak up.
Another reason for the apparent lack of involvement is that those parents often work more than one job and later hours than most, panelists said.
That reaches down to the children as well, said Hunter. She said recently spoke to a group of students who said the reason they cut class was because that was the only time they could find to have some fun.
“The demands of their economic situation,” such as going to school, working part-time to help their families and watching younger siblings, leaves them no time to “just hang out and be kids,” said Hunter. “Because they can’t give up the other things, they give up going to school.”
Hunter criticized Montgomery County’s emphasis on maintaining its “elite reputation” instead of addressing Hispanic students’ academic shortcomings — citing a lack of minority literature as one of her main concerns.
A spokesman for Montgomery County public schools said he is “a bit mystified by the teachers remarks because they contradict” the system’s two-year effort to “shift a considerable amount of resources” to the neediest schools.
“The entire school system’s strategic plan is focused on the twin goals of raising the bar for student achievement and expectations and closing the gap by race and ethnicity,” said Brian Porter, the school spokesman.
He said that Hispanics made up less than 4 percent of the county population 20 years ago, but now comprise more than 16 percent. At Kennedy, said Hunter, Hispanic students make up 22 percent of the student body.
Porter disputed Hunter’s claim that funds are not directed to schools with high numbers of minority students, saying “just the opposite is true.”
But Hunter said county funding efforts do not go far enough to make up for the fact that Kennedy parents do not often have the wherewithal to support the school that parents in wealthier schools do.
One way schools are improving communications relations between families and educators is by hiring Hispanic liaisons, but Hunter noted that Montgomery County’s liaison of two years left last week for a higher paying job.
She said that schools could create day-care centers for families that cannot afford a babysitter and might consider helping students find jobs at school.
But she said the shortcomings in educating Hispanic students are “a gaping wound” that will not be healed by putting Band-Aids on it.
“There’s much to be done to help this problem,” Hunter said.