Latino Parents Shifting Black-White Paradigm in Memphis-Area Schools

Latino Parents Shifting Black-White Paradigm in Memphis-Area Schools

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Hispanic parents in this city care about the education of their children just as much as any other ethnic group, declared one Hispanic mother, Marta Lopez, during a recent town hall discussion on education.

Lopez, who works at a local school, said there is a false stereotype that Hispanic parents in Memphis aren’t engaged in their children’s schooling. There are some parents who may be reluctant to involve themselves in school life because of language barriers, she said, but that is changing.

“In the last couple years, I've seen a lot more Hispanic parents stepping up and playing more of a role in their children's education,” said Lopez. “We’re not just sitting back in the corner waiting on someone to do something for our families, for our kids. We are actually stepping forward.”

Lopez was among a number of concerned parents who participated in a recent town hall meeting on education, co-sponsored by New America Media and Latino Memphis, a nonprofit agency that advocates for the Hispanic community in the greater Memphis area. The parents expressed a number of concerns about their children's education to an audience of local teacher’s groups, PTA organizations, education advocates and local media.

The parents came looking for answers and assistance in navigating a school system that is currently very much in flux.

The majority-white Shelby County schools and the predominantly black, city schools in Memphis are currently in the midst of one of the largest school district consolidations in the nation’s history – one that will shape the course of public education in the Memphis area for generations to come.

So far, it's been a slow and (according to some) arduous process in merging the larger Memphis City Schools with the smaller, but richer, Shelby County Schools. The county Board of Education still has a number of obstacles to overcome, such as closing schools, reconciling two separate teacher evaluations systems, and managing a district that now includes unionized teachers in Memphis, and non-union county teachers.

Yet the larger problem appears to be a lack of trust between the two districts that dates back to the 1960s, when whites fled Memphis (and the city’s public schools) after federal court orders instituted busing as a way to integrate city schools.

While education matters in the Memphis-area have traditionally been framed in black and white, the Hispanic community has grown in recent decades by a large number. Yet their collective voice has yet to be included fully in the public discourse around schools. According to 2010 Census Bureau data, Hispanics now comprise 6 percent of Shelby County's population of 935,088. The City of Memphis makes up the bulk of that population at 652,050 residents. Of that group, 63 percent are black, 29 percent are white, and 6.5 percent are Hispanic.

With discussions still ongoing over how the school district merger will take shape, Hispanic activists and parents have not been content to sit on the sidelines and wait to see how it all unfolds.

“I know that if you want your kids to succeed, you must be involved at all levels – at home, at school and at the district level,” Lopez said.

Many of the parents at the town hall spoke little English and were more than pleased to see that an interpreter was provided. Their concerns were not very different than those of other parents – school safety, student opportunities and academic requirements, aid for special needs students, and more communication with teachers.

The parents did express a desire to see more bilingual forms and instructions coming from the schools. Because the literacy level of many immigrant Hispanic parents is low, said one, they need more instruction from the schools on how to help their children with homework.

Cheryl Floyd, regional director of the Tennessee PTA, informed the parents that they would feel less intimidated if they joined forces with other parents when meeting with teachers or other school officials.

“One of the biggest things we try to do is bring parents together to collaborate in their voice to advocate for their children,” Floyd said. “If you have an issue at your school like getting regular progress reports or getting information in Spanish, then we are the voice to help you get that.”

“We are a culturally diverse organization and all-inclusive. Wherever you are from or wherever your needs are, we want to be able to help address them,” she added.

She encouraged the parents to utilize the PTA website which is bilingual.

A consistent homework schedule would be a great help, pointed out one mother. At her child’s school, she’s not sure when her second-grade daughter is supposed to be doing homework: “One week they have homework. The next week, nothing. The week after that, nothing.”

“I work in a restaurant and it is difficult for me to take time off on short notice to make meetings. Sometimes I only get a 24-hour notice. I need to know what’s going on ahead of time,” she added.

Local organization representatives and parents both agreed that Memphis area teachers need more cultural diversity training, to better understand and communicate with the various ethnic communities that have children attending the area schools.

“That is something we need to look at. Hopefully, we can address those needs,” responded Tammie McCarter, director of Parent and Community Engagement for Memphis City Schools.

“When you have any concerns about your child, it is your right to call the principal or, with a staff person, to make an appointment to address those needs,” McCarter said.

By the end of the 90-minute meeting, the air of anxiety and uncertainty that had permeated the meeting earlier appeared to be replaced by a general sense of optimism and hope. The community organizations encouraged the parents to never stop pushing to get their concerns met, and reminded them that they don’t have to fight alone.

Andrew Duck, a bilingual teacher in the Memphis City Schools, pointed out that, culturally, Hispanic and other immigrants tend to hold teachers in a higher regard than parents typically do in the United States -- where teachers are blamed for nearly everything that is wrong with the educational system.

He commended those who hosted and participated in the town hall meeting, which he felt was a step in the right direction for the soon-to-be unified district.

“It was a great first effort,” Duck said. “I think of all of the issues that we talked about today, the key to everything is communication. We need more people today to understand to communicate their worries and their desires to school leaders.”