The stories in this section were collected from group and individual interviews (15 in total) at one of the colonia’s Community Center located in the southern part of Hidalgo County (known as CC to maintain privacy rights).
The primary focus of the interviews was on education in the post-pandemic era. According to the NY Times, Hidalgo County, with a population of 868, 707 within 1,571square miles, experienced 266,450 COVID cases and 4,032 deaths (1 out of 216 residents). The U.S. reportedly counted a total of 1.1 million deaths. Although we don’t have Hidalgo County’s demographic breakdown on COVID, we can assume that the colonia residents were impacted in disproportionate numbers. Our questions centered around the role of the CC in addressing the needs of the residents, particularly in light of the consequences in having survived COVID. Additionally, we asked the individual interviewees, who were all women with school-age children, their perceptions of their children’s education at home and school.
Focus Group Interview
Several members of the CC’s organizing committees were present at this session, including the CC’s President and also, the Coordinator of the Education Committee. The role and function of the CC is summarized in the statement by an interviewee: “Somos [el comité de educación] un puente entre las escuelas y los padres de familias.” Thus, an important goal is to collectively identify the needs of the colonia families in relation to the school’s role and function.
The Coordinator of the Education Committee (Ed.Cord.) had served as a committee member for eight years before assuming the leadership, an experience which undoubtedly contributed to honing her well-developed, managerial skills. During the pandemic era, the Ed.Cord. led her team of 15 members in assuring that families received the necessary resources that school districts provided. But, families relied extensively on the CC’s resources that are unavailable anywhere else, as one of the stories in this section, “Carmen,” illustrates. The education committee is charged with identifying and acquiring resources on a year-round, continuous timeframe, and the pandemic era was particularly challenging, but they persisted. Every year, the education team is tasked with visiting nearby school districts, identifying their resources and other pertinent information, and then, passing on this information to CC parents, using digital platforms as well as face-to-face meetings. Their training and informational workshops target the specific needs of the colonia(s), and their speakers, many of whom are district personnel, are well-positioned to answer their audience’s questions accurately and adequately. One of the interviewees explained the reason behind the sessions in this quote: “[Las juntas] son para que sus niños logren el éxito académico y puedan llegar a la universidad y no solamente llegar, sino terminar y que tengan todas las herramientas en la mano para que tengan ese éxito desde chiquitos.” [The meetings] are so that children, from a very young age, can achieve academic success and not only enroll at the university but be able to graduate and have the abilities to attain success in life.”
The impact of school and business closures due to the pandemic strongly affected the colonia families. Although most schools issued computer tablets to students, approximately 50 percent of the families could not use them because they didn’t have internet hook-ups. Some of the parents used their cell phones in an effort to help their children, but this only added to their frustration since the phones were inadequate, causing some to completely break down. Some parents reported that the district’s technology equipment did not function well. Parents were off-limits to any school visitations, so they completely relied on the CC for critical information about their children’s education. After the pandemic period, parents were required to return the tablets and the internet connections. These and other experiences led many CC parents and leadership to re-assess the relationship between the families and the school staff. Many CC participants, including the staff, were reluctant to offer critical observations concerning children’s schools, nevertheless their comments pointed to certain issues that had serious consequences. One of the most glaringly pronounced criticism against the school was that school staff was woefully unprepared to help their children. This was corroborated by many of the parents in the individual interviews. One in particular commented that it appeared that teachers were unwilling to help them when they were highly preoccupied in helping their own children. Others mentioned how they were mistreated or flatly refused in favor of helping other parents, seemingly insinuating that they felt discriminated against because of their low income situation. Parents who relied on their jobs for economic survival were particularly impacted since their absence from home (and school meetings) caused a great deal of stress that affected every member of the family, especially the children. Needless to say, many parents felt helpless as they watched their children fall behind academically. Importantly, the CC has taken extra measures to ensure that their collaborative-style of cooperation with the schools were improved and sustainable. Staying in close contact with key members of the school district is a strategy that allows the CC staff to acquire pertinent information and resources, and immediately make them available to the colonia residents.
The Role of the CC in Helping Families During Critical Times
When the interviewees were asked to describe how the CC has been particularly helpful during the pandemic period, one woman shared her poignant story that, as sad and tragic as it may be, the ending is inspirational. The interviewee’s name is Carmen, used as a pseudonym in the narrative to protect her privacy.
Carmen is a grandmother in her late fifties, a mother of five grown sons and recently divorced. She had started full-time work when in 2016, one of her sons suffered a brain hemorrhage and was hospitalized. He and his wife had three young daughters and three other children from his wife’s previous marriage. He survived, much to the relief of Carmen, however, he was in a coma and according to the doctor, only a miracle could bring him back. After several weeks, the miracle did occur, but the stroke had caused extreme damage to his brain that he would require a lengthy time to regain his most basic functional abilities. His wife and Carmen provided him with 24-hour care, even though Carmen continued to work full-time. Then, his wife decided to return to her home in México with the six children. After a two-year period, she notified Carmen that she could no longer care for their three daughters, and asked her if she would become their guardian. Carmen was barely holding on to her job and as the full-time attendant to her son who had still depended on her care. But, she could not refuse her granddaughters. She sold her most prized possession, her wedding rings, and bought a one-way bus ticket for each of her granddaughters.
Carmen immediately enrolled her granddaughters in public school. They had not attended school in México, and she wanted a quality education for them, something she was unable to attain for herself. When the pandemic struck, the school closure forced her girls to stay home, and she had to cut back on her working hours. She felt overwhelmed and struggled to pay her rent and utility bills. She asked the CC, the only organization that she felt could possibly help her, and they provided Carmen with the much-needed assistance. Carmen expressed a profound gratefulness for the CC. Without the CC’s help, Carmen would have relied on the school district for assistance, which from all verifiable sources does not have the quality and extensive resources that her family needed.
Since their return to school, her granddaughters cherish their school experiences and gladly share them with their grandmother: two of them are in the Dual Language education program, and the third granddaughter is receiving Special Education services. Carmen, who once felt was too old to start a “new” life has found her role of “mother” to her granddaughters as rewarding and enriching. And, she has been able to continue her care for her son who is now beyond the basic care phase.
Bilingualism and the Dual Language Program
The questions over the value and benefits of Dual Language Education for the CC parents’ children yielded an overwhelming and enthusiastic response in favor of these programs by every single interviewee. Their shared stories highlight the importance of schools’ offering curricular programs in both English and Spanish, which are particularly appealing for the parents and the extended family members that speak predominantly in Spanish. The fact that the border labor market relies on bilingual speakers adds to parents’ insistence that their children retain their native language in the process of learning English. Numerically and overall, residents in border colonias have a higher percentage, approximately 42 percent, that speak English “less than very well,” compared to a similar cohort amongst “Texas residents,” that reportedly have 15 percent in the “less than very well” category (Source: Census Bureau, 2011 American Survey 5-year Estimates). Their vision of a quality bilingual education for their children is admirable and practical.
Parents at the CC are strong advocates for Dual Language Education (DL). In cases where parents are reluctant to enroll their children in DL, the CC parents are on the frontline in explaining why they should choose the DL over a “regular” program. The interviewees glowingly shared their prized memories of how their children’s bilingual abilities were exceptional. One interviewee, a Spanish-dominant speaking mother, stated that placing her children in dual language was the right decision because “this way they help me and I help them to help each other.” Another interviewee related her experience at a doctor’s office where she was seeking a medical treatment and her seven year-old son served as the translator between herself and the medical staff. The non-Spanish speaking doctor offered to provide the clinic’s translator, but the mother insisted that her son could be just as effective. Her young son impressed the clinic staff members who were in awe at the child’s bilingual (translating) abilities. She proudly added that her son knew both languages very well because he is a student in the dual language program at his school.
The Promise and Challenges of Dual Language Education
As long as the colonia families have access to crucial resources that may sustain them economically and socially throughout unforeseen devastating situations like the pandemic, they may not need to rely exclusively on the school district’s resources but rather strategically manage collaborative efforts with the CC and other community partners. However, the dual language education programs for their children are invaluable and can’t be replicated under any circumstances except in the schools. Thus, the quality and the success of the dual language programs are of utmost importance to families, but taking action to remedy or address any problems associated with the program’s (in)effectiveness is not readily accessible to most parents. Thus, a specific kind of an oversight plan must include a “task force” specifically focused on data collection and analysis and with the ability to develop and communicate the summary findings with the CC families. A “promotora” model for education (in addition to health), for example, ensures that colonia residents are intricately involved in the deep understanding of dual language programs on topics such as school performance areas of achievement, the quality of the curriculum and its use in each of the grade levels, the extent to which the goals and objectives of DL are upheld and promoted in each school and by whom, and the degree(s) of qualifications and competences among key staff members at the school and central administration levels. Reporting the results to the CC families must include not only key facts and information, which reflect accomplishments as well as needs of improvement, but also recommendations on how parents can voice their concerns in specific and action-oriented terms.
In a post-pandemic era, many school districts are razor-focused on increasing the STARR scores that had plummeted to the lowest levels that have ever been documented. A reactionary response amongst district administrators was to halt instruction in Spanish and concentrate on English-language tasks, known as the “language of assessment.”
In a separate and recent interview with a high-level administrator of DL education at a school district where many of the CC parents’ children attend, we posed this question: What is the status of the DL program almost three years after the pandemic? He/She responded with this direct quote:
I mean, in all honesty, in all transparency, I have a concern with most of the campuses. (okay), because, you know, coming back from COVID, everybody is now concerned about accountability, and unfortunately, that’s their focus, accountability. And so coming back I’ve seen the implementation decline. Again, because we’re focusing on STARR.
The administrator was asked about how the English-language instruction was delivered to the students:
I think it was a lot of drill-kill. Those that were tested in Spanish were because they just weren’t doing well in English. So that was, that’s pretty much the focus, because for some reason, across the board, I think it was pre-pandemic, they had this push that, why are we testing kids in Spanish, right? ‘Why are we testing kids in Spanish?’ And so because it was coming from the School Board you know, these principals relate, and you think the Executive Officers were like – it’s a Board thing – English.
The School Board trustees play a vital role in establishing policy which dictates the kind of curriculum used district-wide. We asked the interviewee to elaborate on the School Board discussion concerning DL. He/she responded (in two statements):
Their concern was, you know, why are we testing so many students in Spanish. We need to be focusing our efforts in English. That is the trickle down…
I don’t know if you remember a trustee Palacios? Okay, she’s one of the ones. She was one of the ones that would voice that, and as one goes, like the other ones pretty much have to follow too, right? So. There were other Board members who were in agreement with that as well.
Many questions remain unanswered. CC parents should be cognizant of the decisions made at every level of school district governance. For instance, we learned from this interview that principals make decisions on which curriculum teachers should follow, and not all are using the DL curriculum. Indeed, a district policy in favor of implementing a DL program is important, but the question remains, “to what extent is this policy followed, and how are administrators held accountable for their decisions?’
Advocacy on the part of the CC staff and parents is essential but the need for an informed-based platform is critical if an effective DL program is to thrive and genuinely meet the needs of the students and their families.
Acknowledgements: The author and team members of the Kennedy Consulting and Assessment, LLC, are grateful for the time allotted by the Community Center to complete this important project. Of course, we are so appreciative of the parents that participated in the charlas.
Special thanks to our team director, Dr. Sofia Kennedy.