Students, nonprofits and educators tackle biggest issues facing Houston schools

Article reposted from Houston Chronicle

Maribel Maldonado was the first person in her family to receive a college education. This was a world away from the young girl who did not speak English for the first several years of her life.

Now, as a mother to a 23-year-old engineer, she uses her life experiences to advocate for accessible opportunities in education for non-English speakers.

“I understand the hardships that parents go through to get their kids through college, and I want to pay it forward,” Maldonado said. “Every kid deserves to have every opportunity to flourish in school.”

She attended the Houston-area Issues Assembly on Education event, held Saturday by BakerRipley, a nonprofit that supports residents in across Houston.

It was hosted by Organizing Network for Education (ONE) Houston, Leadership for Educational Equity, Good Reason Houston, Latinos for Education, and The Education Trust.

“The goal is to really hear from the community on what’s most important to them in education,” said Sandra Rodriguez, advocacy director at the Latinos for Education organization. “We want to hear from the community. We want the community to have a space like this to share their voice.”

A pivotal element was the use of real-time translation. The language barrier and struggles of non-English speakers was prioritized to ensure all 400 attendees felt included.

“The language barrier allows for there to be so many miscommunications, and that means that there will be people whose voices are never heard,” said Alexis Gage, a science teacher at Chavez High School and member of ONE Houston. “So to have the interpretation in real time allows for voices that have been silenced all this time to be brought into the light.”

Throughout the event, attendees broke into smaller groups to discuss eight different issues facing education, and expressed their frustrations and the changes that they want to see happen.

One topic that was brought up in a small group focused on better parent engagement of non-English speakers through the need for more diverse teaching staff in schools.

Maldonado sat in on the group discussion and explained how having a Spanish-speaking teacher changed her experience during elementary school.

During her early years, she and her mother only spoke Spanish. And because of that, she was unable to attend any field trips in school.

She said her situation did not change until one of her teachers, a Hispanic woman, approached her and her mother to help them so Maldonado could attend school trips.

“That goes a long way, having cultural awareness, and you don’t have that unless you have diversity in your teachers, because every culture is different,” she said.

Diana Tang, a member of ONE Houston, explained the importance of having groups discuss the biggest issues they see in education in an open forum.

“The goal for today is really to identify issues that are widely and deeply felt in education currently,” Tang said. “One of the core tenets of organizing this is that people who are directly impacted can go to the decision makers with a plan for what they feel needs to be changed.”

After the group discussions, all of the attendees had to vote from the eight issues and decide which three are the most imperative to take action toward.

They would then be contacted by action teams composed of members of several nonprofit organizations in attendance to create plans for new policies on those issues.

“Each organization has their goals, but we want to be able to work together to invest in new policies and practices,” Rodriguez said.

During a small group discussion on immigration resources, one student spoke about his personal experience as an immigrant and journeying through education in the U.S.

Otto Acosta Pacheco, 15, is a freshman attending KIPP East End High School.

He discussed his experience in education coming to America at the age of 4 as a Mexican immigrant.

“Us immigrants are neglected by many English-speaking folks that just don’t care,” Pacheco said. “We have a Spanish classroom for English-speaking students who want to learn a different language. But where are the English-speaking classes for us immigrants?”

Pacheco said that the reason he was able to learn to speak English was because his father was a fluent speaker. 

He said he was lucky, and that many immigrants are not as fortunate to have the resources he did.

Pacheco said that this event opened his eyes to the fact that there are many people who feel the way he does, and now he is empowered to make a difference.

“Now that I know that there are people that support, it makes me really want to start something bigger to advocate, because it’s about people like me,” he said. “They struggle in silence. The reason many of them are not here is because they don’t know how to speak English.”

Gage expressed how influential advocacy is for educators, and how much joy it brought her to see students taking their future into their own hands.

“It has been incredible to see the future generation showing up. There are no words to describe it,” she said. “It means a lot because I know that when I’m older, they’ll be the ones making decisions for me. So I need them to be here.”

Staci Childs, a member of the State Board of Education, was one of the elected officials who attended the event. 

She explained how important it is for lawmakers to hear the concerns of their communities instead of observing from a distance.

“This is absolutely important, because as an elected official, sometimes we assume what the issues are and what’s important to our constituents,” she said. “But as we saw in there, we didn’t really know until we physically saw the bodies stand at the issues that were important to them, and that was eye-opening to me.”

When asked about the lasting impression events like this make on society, Childs said, “It showed the people that they have power. And when you organize and speak up, change can happen.”

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