Filling in the Educational Gaps

Latina/o community group holding school board candidates accountable

By Gilda L. Ochoa
Published on LatinoLA: September 27, 2015

Filling in the Educational Gaps

The first of many promotional flyers for the November school board elections appeared last week in my mailbox. Featuring smiling candidates touting their credentials, these one-dimensional images are often the only contact residents have with candidates. This divide between those running our schools and the community and students they purport to serve is absent in public discourse, but in some communities the divide is vast.

To address some of these gaps, for nearly two decades a Latina/o community group in the Los Angeles County has organized their own forums to interview candidates. With long roots in the area, we are K-18 educators, organizers, past presidents of school committees, and immigrant parents who have sent children and now grandchildren to college. A commitment to educational justice unites us, as does the knowledge of a legacy of Latina/o exclusion and lack of representation in our schools.

Armed with clipboards and questions, we recently met candidates. These exchanges revealed important lessons about who is vying to run our schools and what we should expect of them. We began by introducing ourselves, including our connections to education. However, some candidates ignored how we have worked for change and dismissed our knowledge about the conditions in our schools.

One candidate boasted about all that he alone had accomplished. Taking credit for programs, he failed to mention the roles of others ÔÇô including community members and years of struggle. This grandstanding conveyed a lack of commitment to collaboration, and it perpetuated the pattern too common in our schools of ignoring the contributions of working people and communities of color.

Another told us how much he "loves Hispanics" and that we "are not down trodden, murders, or rapers as Donald Trump made us out to be." Assuming we were ashamed of our community, he aimed to demonstrate his support with us. However, when he continually expressed his "surprise" at having met Latinas/os who attended college and medical school, his comments instead suggested the low expectations he has of Latinas/os. Such stereotyped assumptions have no place among our elected school leaders.

Ignoring the community leaders and dedicated parents in front of them, some candidates exclaimed, "Parents need to get more involved." Rather than considering their roles or how schools can better serve all students, these comments were patronizing, especially in front of parents who have devoted years to the community. Those who believe parents are to blame for educational disparities relinquish the responsibilities of the school board for improving educational outcomes.

In some cases, data were emphasized over analysis and people. Despite our years of experience, some candidates spoke with great authority about "the [quantitative] data." We were told, "I've studied this," and "I've looked at this much like a professor." "The data" were referred to in general as though they are self-explanatory, and little analysis was offered. In contrast, community members gave concrete examples of school closures, teachers' limited supplies, and students lacking permanent teachers. This privileging of quantitative data over lived experiences perpetuates the dismissing of how education is actually experienced, and it hinders the possibility of changing the conditions within our schools.

The inequalities in educational outcomes that concerned the community members were glossed over by some of the candidates as well. While quantitative data reveals racial, class, and geographic inequalities in enrollment in advanced placement courses and the types of programs offered across high school, some candidates conveniently overlooked this information.

Finally, when queried about books that have influenced their approaches, a couple confessed, "I don't read a lot of books on education" or "the books stem from my college days." This lack of continual education on schooling was alarming, especially for those aiming to lead a district.

Fortunately, there were thoughtful candidates well versed in educational theories and practices, and a couple expressed a sincere desire to listen. While we have yet to see if actions will follow their comments, they at least reveal a refreshing amount of humility and willingness to learn.

This forum was a powerful display of Latina/o community activism. It also unmasked the images candidates have constructed in their flyers, and it punctuated how we must hold candidates accountable for their words and push them to heed a mission common in many of our schools -- to be lifelong-learners. Being lifelong learners shouldn't just apply to K-12 students, and it involves learning not only from academic scholarship but also from community members.

About Gilda L. Ochoa:
Gilda L. Ochoa is Professor of Sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies at Pomona College. She is the author of several books, including Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans and the Achievement Gap (2013) and Learning from Latino Teachers (2007).

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