Latino community calls for equity in online education

The group stepped forward in many ways when schools went online in the spring.

In a series of videos presented as part of the public comments section of the Aug. 13 Vashon school district board meeting, seven mothers representing the grassroots organization Comunidad Latina de Vashon advocated for greater equity in the rollout of online school in the fall.

Among the subjects outlined in the subtitled videos — six of which were subtitled in English because their speakers spoke in Spanish — were the Latino community’s request for tutors and other daily supports for their children, the translation of school materials into Spanish so that parents could better assist their children with understanding assignments and the addition of a bilingual, bi-cultural teacher to the FamilyLink program.

The Beachcomber is not naming the speakers, with the exception of one whose full name was included in the video, to protect their privacy.

The group also asked for more technical support for families with limited experience with technology and inadequate WIFI connections, and requested for the district to participate in regular discussion groups with Comunidad Latina to address the equity divide in Vashon schools.

But one of the mothers in the video, who said she had lived on Vashon for 19 years, made a plea for something more fundamental to the school district’s equity practice: a sense of greater respect and inclusion for Latino students at the school.

In an emotional passage of her testimony, delivered from her home as her middle-school-aged son sat beside her on a sofa, she detailed how her older son had not graduated from Vashon High School.

“He was one of the students who was not taken into account,” she said, describing that her older son felt “rejected” by the school. “His dream was to study and graduate. Unfortunately, he reached a point [where] he did not have the opportunity.”

According to VISD Superintendent Slade McSheehy, Latino students currently comprise roughly 13% of the student body in Vashon schools.

However, graduation rates lag for these students, as detailed in data culled from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). In 2019, Latino students on Vashon had a graduation rate of 70% — lower than the statewide average of 75.7% of Latino students. White students on Vashon, the same year, had a graduation rate of 93.9%.

In contrast, on Bainbridge Island — a community with some similarity to Vashon — 86.4% of Latino students graduated in 2019, well above the state average for Latino students and even above the percentage of white students graduating statewide, which was 82.9%.

As part of the video presentation for the school board meeting, Cindi Hernandez, who attended Vashon High School and now has a child in the district, spoke in English about the work of Comunidad Latina, which coordinated the production of the video.

The group, she said, stepped forward in many ways when schools went online in the spring.

Comunidad provided bilingual, bi-cultural mental health support for Latino students through Puentes, a mental health organization that the organization has also engaged, for the past two years, to work at Chautauqua Elementary.

The group also enlisted its own tech support network through Geeking Out Kids of Color (GOKiC) an organization that works to empower kids of color through education in computer science and technology.

Comunidad also recruited older, bilingual Latino mentors to support students in the elementary school district, she said.

“This helped but was not enough,” Hernandez said. “We are concerned there is no concrete plan for Latino students and the barriers they face.”

In pushing for more support, Hernadez also mentioned a statement made by McSheehy in a recent Zoom Q&A with parents about an online school.

“Our superintendent stated he is working with Comunidad to work with Latino families,” she said. “This is not entirely true, yet we don’t want to give up … We feel that our Latino families are not being offered equal education to Latino youth. We want this to change.”

Comunidad Latina was formed in 2012 to support the Latino community on the island and also bring awareness of their cultural contributions to the greater community.

Over the years, the group has organized large contingents of Latino families to march in the Strawberry Festival parades and has partnered with organizations including Vashon Center for the Arts to acknowledge and celebrate Latino holidays including Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos.

But the biggest part of Comunidad’s work is in organizing and supporting its own community with programs promoting teen mentorship, a get-out-the-vote effort, regular meetings for members, and ongoing advocacy for equity in the schools.

The group’s work has benefited other islanders as well.

Comunidad strongly advocated for VISD’s all-day Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) bilingual preschool at Chautauqua Elementary, which opened in 2014. The preschool serves not only Latino students but also other vulnerable island families, identified using a state metric for family concerns.

Recently, the group won a $30,000 grant to support the preschool, Hernandez said in her public statements.

Comunidad has also had to fight, in recent months, to preserve the preschool from a significant funding cut by the school district.

Last Thursday’s school board meeting marked the second time in recent months that Comunidad has come together to create a subtitled video to be presented at a school board meeting.

In April, the group submitted a video with testimony by Latino youth and parents in support of full funding for the preschool, which at that time was targeted by the school administration for cuts for the second year in a row.

That video was not aired at the meeting after board Chair Rheagan Sparks cited challenges of live-streaming on Zoom, which board members were using for the first time. But other public comments were read in support of the program, and after discussion, the board voted to fully fund the ECEAP preschool for another year.

Shortly after the airing of the most recent video at last Thursday’s board meeting, McSheehy responded during the board meeting to the speakers’ call for equity and inclusion in online education.

“I appreciate Comunidad Latina, I know that we have not had the kind of relationship that I would like and so I want to strengthen that — and there has been communication over the last couple of weeks that I am looking forward to following up with, and hopefully meeting with them soon,” he said.

In a follow-up email on Monday, McSheehy elaborated further in response to the concerns raised by Comunidad at the board meeting, promising that the district would address many of the issues detailed in the video.

“We are working toward a solution to provide Latino families supports including two hours of tutoring per day, technology that works and is accessible, dedicated advocacy and resource staff, learning materials in Spanish and instructions to parents in Spanish, culturally relevant assignments, and the flexibility for students to be either remote or in-person when it is safe to do so,” he said.

He also said that he was thankful for the increased support from Comunidad Latino, especially the new ECEAP preschool grant funds.

Sparks, in an email, also responded to a request from The Beachcomber to detail VISD’s racial equity practices in light of the video presentation by Comunidad Latina.

“The board continues to support racial equity work in our district as a board priority for all people of color in our educational community,” she said. “I am very pleased with how much more bias awareness has resulted from this work, and there is certainly still more work to do … The intention to improve our district in terms of racial equity and social justice is genuine, and the board will support building relationships to accomplish that in the years ahead.”

Online school for Vashon’s Latino children, filled with all of the issues addressed by the speakers in their video to the school board, begins in less than two weeks.

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