Spanish-Speaking Parents Struggle to Learn How Well Schools Serve Their...

Diversity and Equity

Spanish-Speaking Parents Struggle to Learn How Well Schools Serve Their Children

By Jenny Abamu     Jul 2, 2018

Spanish-Speaking Parents Struggle to Learn How Well Schools Serve Their Children
Goya Diaz, a parent in Detroit, MI.

This story is Part II of a two-part look at parents and school data.

Goya Diaz can’t pretend that school data is the first concern that comes to mind when she thinks about issues ailing her community in southwest Detroit. With high poverty rates, overcrowded classrooms and fears over Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, she says many parents are just trying to survive.

Diaz lives with her husband and two children in a predominantly Spanish-speaking community. After watching officials shut down low-performing schools in her neighborhood, she has mixed feelings about how data-driven accountability has affected community schools.

“They are like, ‘Well you know what, these kids are not even learning,’ and they’re closing a lot of schools because of that data,” says Diaz, speaking about how officials in her community have used student outcomes to justify their decisions to close schools. “[Data] is sometimes bringing us down, unfortunately.”

But that hasn’t stopped Diaz from advocating for parents like her to have better access to and understanding of school data. As observed in Part I of EdSurge’s report on school data, parents say insights from data dashboards allows them to make informed decisions about their children’s school experience and helps the community hold local officials accountable to promises for improvements.

This information, which often includes data such as graduation rates, student attendance, the number of suspensions and how students from different demographic backgrounds perform on subjects like reading and math, is particularly important for parents in Spanish-speaking communities like Diaz. She has a second-grade son who grew up in a dual-language home and needs support to ensure he is proficient in reading.

For these parents, understanding how local school systems are serving the needs of English Language Learners (ELL) is critical. When students enter middle and high school, proficiency in English can have big consequences. Those who are proficient can take regular classes, and choose their electives and sometimes enter advanced-placement courses.

Students who don’t reach proficiency, however, are tracked for a different school experience — sometimes taking full schedules of remedial courses that may not be sufficiently rigorous, and performing below grade-level throughout high school. Though many of these students may retest each year, parents note that their children fall further and further behind as they remain in remedial courses. Many of these students are also not considered “college-ready” by the time they make it to graduation.

The demographic data showing how students from different backgrounds are performing on exams helps parents learn how other kids like their own are faring. They are able to ask questions like, “Are many ELL students performing below grade-level in English at this school, or is it only my child?” And knowing the answer to such questions can help parents make decisions about how to support their children, and what kind of change to seek from school officials — may be pushing for investments in after-school reading programs.

Maribel Coreas, a parent in northern California. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

Maribel Coreas is another parent concerned about her children’s English proficiency levels. She has two children in West Contra Costa Unified School District in northern California — a fourth-grade son and a fifth-grade daughter. Both attend Dover Elementary School where student achievement in math and English decreased significantly during the last year.

Her children’s first language is Spanish, but both are only taught in English and test below grade-level in almost every subject. According to data from the California School Dashboard, Dover Elementary School has also seen significant drops in achievement for both ELL students and those who have been reclassified, after passing exams, from ELL to proficient. These are alarming statistics for Coreas as she fights to see her children do well in a school where most students appear to be falling further and further behind academically.

“If I don’t learn these statistics, my son will become a statistic,” Coreas says in Spanish. To educate herself, she has been taking classes with a nonprofit parent network called GO to learn more about how to access and understand school data.

The classes she took with GO has shown her how to dive into data portals, read graphs and advocate for up-to-date information from the school district. She has also taken her knowledge to school board meetings where she has demanded answers for low proficiency levels and voted on school budgets.

“On the school site council, we make big decisions about all our students — English Language Learners and those that are behind in grade level. We need numbers and figures to help us make informed decisions, to say yes or no,” explains Coreas in Spanish.

Coreas has also learned to advocate for her children with data. After lobbying the school, Coreas’ son was placed in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) because of his hearing disability. Parents who have students with IEP status receive regular data on their child’s progression through classes. Now Coreas gets frequent reports that show what her son has mastered, how educators are supporting him and what he still needs to improve on.

Her daughter, however, doesn’t have an IEP, and Coreas worries that semester report cards only offer vague insights into her daughter’s English language development.

“My daughter is in fifth grade, and she is on a fourth-grade reading level. That is frustrating because she has always been part of the English program. And I was told that it takes children 4 to 5 years in order for them to be fluent in English,” Coreas explains, wondering why her daughter appears to be behind.

One of the Lucky Ones

In spite of the struggles, Coreas and Diaz consider themselves the lucky ones. They note that many parents in their community face language, technological and educational barriers to accessing and understanding school data. Many also don’t have the time to take classes with advocacy groups like GO because they work many hours to make ends meet.

“People are living paycheck to paycheck, and they cannot afford an iPhone or any kind of phone technology that has internet on it,” Diaz explains, noting that school data is often only available online. “For people to go into the library to be able to access that data, that’s hard too. You know you can’t just go into a library to get a library card because nowadays they ask you for an ID. Unfortunately, a lot of people in my community do not have access to good IDs because of their legal status. So again, they cannot go into a computer and get that data.”

Diaz notes that she, as a fluent English speaker, also struggles to read and interpret the data she sees online.

“If you just open a page and it’s just graphs or even a little line going from one year to another, what does that mean? For me that means nothing,” Diaz continues. “Unless they have some live person there like a chat line saying, ‘Well this is what you're looking at.’ That would be great if there were somebody I can talk to.”

Though Diaz wants upgrades to the data portal, she is also torn — weary about the school district spending too much money on a data portal that few parents in her community can access, especially when there are so many other pressing issues.

“Data is not really our first concern,” says Diaz, noting the many problems her community has to overcome. “[We worry] how are we going to make it through the day? Are we going to have food, or is my husband going to come back from work? There are other things more important for us than data. So, hopefully, they don't invest too much money in that.”

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