Latino children are the largest racial-ethnic group in Boston Public Schools, but the collective voice of their parents does not loom large in the system.
In fact, they’re barely heard.
Latino parents are underrepresented on school councils and don’t speak before the school committee at a level approaching their children’s plurality in the district, according to school department data. Latino students make up 42 percent of the district’s enrollment.
“We might be the majority, but we’re the silent minority,” said Julia Mejia, the executive director of the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network.
The relative silence of Latino parents is at odds with what they have at stake — Latino students have some of the worst outcomes in the district. And despite research showing that parent involvement in a child’s school can boost learning and improve behavior, Boston has over the years cut staff dedicated to engaging parents in general.
Missing In the Schools
State law requires that all schools have school site councils — made up of an equal number of parents and staff — to decide on that school’s budget, hiring and improvement plans. Parent membership on the councils should broadly represent the school’s parents, according to that law.
WGBH News examined district data for Boston schools where at least 50 percent of students are Latinos and found that parents with Spanish surnames constituted the majority of parent council members in 9 of the 35 schools. Another six of these 35 did not appear to have councils at all, and four schools did not have parents on their councils.
Not all Latinos have Spanish surnames, and some people who do have Spanish surnames don’t consider themselves Latino. WGBH News obtained from Boston Public Schools the names of parents on school councils for 96 out of 122 schools. The lists did not include race or ethnicity, so counting Spanish surnames was the best way to approximate how many Latino parents serve on these councils.
“We’re not there yet,” conceded Monica Roberts, chief engagement officer for Boston Public Schools. “I think our school leaders would say the same thing. It’s a place where we’re continuously working.”
While some schools don’t have school site councils, others have them, but don’t have as many parents as teachers, Roberts said.
“Some schools have very strong racial, ethnic, linguistic and socioeconomic diversity,” she added. “Others do not.”
Missing at the Podium
Parents with Spanish surnames don’t speak at school committee meetings in large numbers, possibly because they aren’t as involved in school site councils or their children’s schools don’t have them. Parents have to know their children’s school faces budget cuts, for example, before they can try to prevent the loss of funds.
During the 2018-2019 school year, 442 different people signed up to speak at the Boston School Committee’s weekly meetings. Based on a WGBH News analysis of BPS data, 27 of them were parents with Spanish surnames, making up 6 percent of all speakers.
When BPS surveyed parents online about the superintendent search in fall, 2018, and then again in April about the ultimate choice among three finalists, a total of six people completed surveys in Spanish, even though 27 percent of BPS students speak Spanish as their first language, according to BPS data.
“Public comment certainly isn’t the only way that we take input from the community on any plans or proposals that come through the committee or are put out there by the district,” said School Committee Chairperson Michael Loconto.
“The voices that we are constantly looking for are those that are not necessarily represented in public comment, so that we are ensuring that the policies that the district is putting forward for our review and approval are serving the students that this district serves,” Loconto added.
New Superintendent Brenda Cassellius was hired, in part, because of her vision for what she called “authentic engagement” of parents. In her first several days, she has made overtures to Latinos and Spanish-speaking parents by attending church services in Spanish, doing interviews with Spanish-language television media, elevating Latino administrators within Boston Public Schools and hiring a high-level Latina administrator who worked for her in Minnesota. But still, she faces great challenges overcoming what many describe as years of disenfranchisement.
Why Aren’t They More Present?
In interviews, Latino parents, academics, organizers, school committee members, teachers and former and current Boston school officials offered many explanations for why Latino parents are not well represented in school decision-making.
“Latino parents don’t have flexible jobs,” said Lilliana Arteaga, co-chair of the school site council at the Dante Alighieri Montessori School in East Boston. “They can’t take the time off to attend a bunch of meetings.”
Speaking in Spanish, Elsa Flores, a mother and parent educator in East Boston, said, “Some parents are afraid of deportation, and they worry about the schools cooperating with ICE” or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Angelina Camacho, who has a son at the Hurley K-8 School in the South End, said, “We’re not a homogenous group of people. And until we’re recognized as the dynamic group that we are, we won’t have much clout,”
Camacho was the Latino co-chair of the Citywide Parent Council until recently, a role that no longer exists.
A Blind Spot?
Forty-two percent of students in Boston Public Schools are Hispanic, according to the state. More than a quarter of the district’s students speak Spanish as their first language. Most of the Latinos in Boston trace their roots to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia.
The majority of the Latinos in Boston Public schools are poor – 66 percent are “economically disadvantaged,” according to the state.
For the purposes of this story, Brazilian parents are not included as Hispanic. Although some might consider themselves Latino, as they’re from Latin America, the state uses the term “Hispanic” to identify children of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, Dominican, Central or South American descent. Brazilians typically classify their children as “other” on Boston Public School forms, said Citywide Parent Council member Danubia Carmargos Silva. She writes “Brazilian” on forms so that her child is counted as a Portuguese speaker.
“The district is still reluctant to acknowledge the change that has taken place in the demography of the student body at the Boston public schools,” said Miren Uriarte, a retired UMass Boston professor and former Boston Public School committee member. “There is a real resistance to really even admitting and lauding the fact that it’s a multi-cultural district.”
Uriarte says this blind spot prevents the district from creating adequate programs and services for Latino children and their parents.
The blind spot may be an artifact of Boston’s history of desegregation, in which black families demanded better schools for their children, and some white families and leaders resisted integrating schools through busing.
Boston still sees itself as a city of black and white residents, still working through a history of school desegregation, said school committee member and UMass Boston professor Lorna Rivera.
That dynamic was at play, she said, during the superintendent selection earlier this year.
Rivera supported Cuban-American candidate Marie Izquierdo from Miami. Rivera thought Izquierdo would relate better to the needs of Latino students and all students learning English.
“I like Cassellius,” Rivera said, referring to new superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who is African-American and the former state education commissioner for Minnesota. Rivera said it bothered her when school committee members spoke of choosing Cassellius because she could work well with “the community.”
“What are we talking about here?” Rivera said. “Let’s be real. The community is Latino.”
Latino parents’ relative silence in the district, however, diminishes their influence.
After the superintendent selection, Rivera said a fellow committee member explained their vote for Cassellius, by saying, “Well, you know, I haven’t gotten any calls from Latinos.”
Immigrants who don’t speak English fluently complained about feeling disrespected in their children’s schools.
“In most cases, they look down on us as though we aren’t worth anything,” said Elsa Flores, who taught science and math in her native El Salvador before moving to Boston nearly two decades ago. “But they need to understand that they have their jobs because of us.”
Flores described her three sons’ dizzying trajectory through the city’s schools.
When her eldest son entered Boston Public Schools, it was a few years after the state passed a law via a 2002 ballot question that essentially banned bilingual education, which some educators interpreted as outlawing any Spanish in the classroom.
When Flores saw her son struggle in class because he didn’t speak English, she approached the teacher and asked him to help.
“I can see my son doesn’t have the level of English necessary to keep up in this class. Could you please help him by speaking to him in Spanish sometimes?” she recalled asking him in Spanish. She said he responded by whispering, “Señora, I can’t help your son. I’m not allowed to speak Spanish in this school. If I speak Spanish, I could lose my job.”
She remembers the same son getting transferred to other schools without her knowledge and — even this last year — attending special education meetings to review a nephew’s individual education plans in which the school didn’t provide an interpreter, something schools are legally required to do.
“We just want to be treated like we’re partners in our children’s education. Unfortunately, in many schools, we’re not,” Flores said.
Know Your Rights
Even though Flores was a school teacher and has an advanced degree from a university in El Salvador, she said she didn’t have the courage to speak up in her sons’ schools. Then she learned from other parents and organizers that she had the right to object to a school placement, request her sons’ progress be evaluated or demand that documents relating to his educational plan be provided in Spanish.
Some educators, parents and organizers think the district should do more to help Latino parents who didn’t grow up in the mainland United States understand the expectations of parents in American schools.
When Angelica Infante-Green, now state education commissioner in Rhode Island, interviewed for the commissioner job in Massachusetts two years ago, she made the case for training low-income and immigrant parents. She was not offered the job.
During the job interview, when asked how she would increase parent participation, she said she would start with trusted community groups to teach them parents’ rights in schools.
“Give them the tools to turn around and say, hey, these are the things you promised us. How do we get them?” she said.
Julia Mejia, who has trained immigrant parents, said some people think “we don’t care. But the reality is that we don’t know that the American education system is very different than in our homeland. Here we’re supposed to have a voice, we’re supposed to participate, but I don’t think much is being done to help educate parents about their role in closing the achievement gap or about their rights.”
Mejia – who is running for Boston City Council – also helps schools and the state design strategies to better involve parents.
When Latinos Had A Voice
Puerto Ricans and Cubans began arriving in Boston in large numbers in the 1960s and 1970s. Factories and farm owners lured Puerto Ricans directly from the island to Boston. Puerto Ricans had U.S. citizenship and could work legally. They also accepted low wages. Cubans came to escape Fidel Castro’s revolution.
When they moved here, their children didn’t have an easy time. Boston Public Schools didn’t have adequate programs for teaching children who didn’t speak English. As a result, thousands of Puerto Rican and Cuban children didn’t go to school, according to a 1969 investigation by The Task Force on Children Out of School.
In 1971, lawmakers stepped in with a law mandating schools teach children in their native language for a few years while they transitioned to learning full time in English. The law charged the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education with creating parent groups to be involved in the bilingual programs.
There would be a parent group representing each language. In Boston, where there were programs for multiple languages, they were managed under one umbrella group – the Bilingual Master Parent Advisory Council, or MasterPAC.
Meanwhile, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. mandated the creation of school parent groups based on ethnicity and race and a wider Citywide Parent Council to monitor the integration of Boston Public Schools. He mandated the school district pay staff to support these groups.
Carmen Pola headed the Bilingual Master PAC. Pola, originally from Puerto Rico, had worked as a labor organizer and had been organizing Puerto Ricans to fight for better public housing conditions.
The parents of children in bilingual education were frustrated with how Boston was carrying out the program. There weren’t enough services, and the district had planned changes to the bilingual program, which parents thought would make it harder to monitor. The Supreme Court had recently decided the case Lau v. Nichols, which in 1974 established a child’s civil right to specialized language instruction if they had limited proficiency in English.
Pola and Alan Rom, a lawyer who was working for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, thought they could prove the district was violating students’ civil rights under the Lau decision and state law.
In March 1979, Pola led about 300 parents holding signs in half a dozen languages into the school committee chambers at BPS’ old headquarters on Court Street near City Hall, according to The Boston Globe.
Pola raised her hand to speak during the meeting.
“You’re not on the agenda,” the school committee chair said, according to Pola.
“I don’t understand what an agenda is,” she said. “But I’m here, and you’re going to do it, because you were elected by us in this city to listen to us, not to just sit there.”
Pola said school committee member John O’Bryant, an African American, made a motion to let Pola speak.
“We took over the school committee,” said Pola.
Over the next several months, Pola and Rom negotiated a voluntary agreement with the district that they called a “Lau Plan.” The agreement spelled out exactly how bilingual services would be delivered.
The Lau plan mandated student-teacher ratios for bilingual classes, pay from the district for parent advocates, and semi-annual district reports on the status of bilingual education. The plan also required approval from the Bilingual Master PAC before making changes to the bilingual programs.
“As a parent, I felt powerful,” Pola said.
The plan was modified a few times, but it lasted two decades, through several superintendents.
Under the plan, to help parents, Boston employed bilingual field coordinators for each language group present in the district. The field coordinators were expected to train parents about their rights, inform them of changes in the district, reach out if their kids were truant and even drive parents to meetings.
In the early 2000s, urban school districts around the state ran into budget troubles. The cost of delivering an education was outpacing the state’s formula for reimbursing schools. In 2002, Boston faced a budget deficit of $45 million.
That same year, the school committee, during the tenure of Superintendent Tom Payzant, moved to rescind the plan and stop funding 12 staff positions that supported the Bilingual Master PAC. The school committee also cut positions supporting three other parent groups, including the Citywide Parent Council. In total, the positions had cost $500,000, according to the Boston Herald.
“They don’t want parents trained in knowing their rights and forcing school districts to do things that they don’t want to do or pay for,” Rom said in an interview with WGBH News.
Payzant was unavailable to comment on this decision. Then-school committee chairperson Elizabeth Reilinger did not return calls or emails.
A few years after the school committee’s decision to cut funding for parent groups, the district hired a former parent organizer to run Boston’s office of engagement. Michele Brooks had big plans.
She started a “Parent University” to teach parents their rights and how to navigate schools. She gained national recognition.
“Parents were hungry to get information,” Brooks said.
But budget cuts quickly reined in her ambitions. Between her hiring in 2008 and 2013, her staff dedicated to parent engagement dropped from 23 to 13, according to an Education Week interview with Brooks in 2013.
Focus on parent engagement across the district also took a hit, Brooks said.
“When deficits come, folks want to cut the things that they think are not vital, and family engagement always is on the chopping block,” Brooks said. “The district has chosen to really focus on instruction, instruction, instruction and not the engagement of families. They’re not leveraging families as a way to really help students achieve.”
Michael Loconto, chairman of the school committee, said, “The core things that we do in our schools — it’s teaching and learning. And so that’s the thing that we need to put at the forefront, given the resources that we have.”
When Brooks retired in 2015, Monica Roberts took over Boston’s office of engagement.
Roberts will have five staff members next year dedicated to helping school principals, teachers and families, in her words, “meet the baseline in terms of having a functioning school site council and school parent council.”
Parent University has shifted from holding large conferences for parents to school-based clubs for parents and children, because parents didn’t want to be away from their kids. Roberts’ team includes three people to carry out Parent University.
A task force within Boston Public Schools that monitors the progress of English learners in the district and the services available to them has raised concerns about parent participation for parents of all English learners, not just Latinos.
The task force looked at three schools over two years and talked to 30-40 families, according to task force member Cheng Imm Tan.
“A lot of ELL parents have a hard time getting involved,” Tan said. “They don’t understand the system, and they don’t feel welcomed.”
For at least three years, the task force has recommended holding principals accountable for family engagement and the resources to support them. They have asked the district to include family engagement when evaluating a school leader’s job performance.
“It has not moved an inch,” Tan said.
If there are no resources to help the principals engage families, then it’s not fair to hold them accountable, she added.
“There are people in the district who want to do right by kids,” Tan said. “But English learners are always put on the back burner, because there are always crises to be solved.”
In recent years, racial tensions at Boston Latin School, transportation challenges, changing school start times, former Superintendent Tommy Chang’s abrupt departure, closing schools and the plan to modernize the district’s buildings have dominated the headlines and the agenda of the Boston School Committee and district central office.
Family Friendly Schools
At one school, Boston has a model of family engagement that many parents say is working.
At James Otis Elementary School in East Boston on a Tuesday morning during the school year, dozens of parents were grabbing coffee and danishes before heading to their children’s classrooms.
During the last few weeks of school, they came in for special meetings with teachers about their children’s academic progress. But unlike many parent-teacher conferences, the information was easily understood.
A Spanish interpreter huddled with a group of mothers and fathers at one table. At another table, two mothers compared reports.
Parents learned whether their children were reading at grade level and whether they were doing what’s expected in math. They received a packet of materials to work on with their child over the summer. Such meetings happen three times a year at the Otis.
“These meetings are really good,” Caterin Ferrufino said in Spanish. “I can see the progress my son is making, and they give us materials to help if there are any problems.”
Ferrufino, who is originally from Guatemala and has been in Boston for 21 years, moved her son to the Otis after her daughter had a good experience there.
The teachers and the principal are very accessible, she said.
These mothers say they make a point to take off work to attend these special Tuesday breakfasts, called Academic Parent Teacher Team meetings, to go over their children’s academic progress. But they cannot make it to other Tuesday breakfasts, when parents get together and learn about the MCAS or about the exam schools.
This welcoming and supportive environment, parents say, has helped Latino parents get more involved.
The Otis has a school site council with seven parent members — four are Latino.
In 2011, Michele Brooks started an initiative called Family Friendly Schools. The Otis was the first school in the district to be certified. Only three schools in the district have followed suit: McKay K-8 in East Boston, Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston and Mozart Elementary School in Roslindale.
Requirements for certification include having a school site council, a plan for engaging families that connect to classroom instruction, and a more than 50 percent response rate on surveys asking parents how they feel about their children’s school.
Roberts calls certification a “high bar.” Her goal is for half to be “family friendly” in the next five years, but accomplishing that will depend on resources.
With the district lacking a Bilingual MasterPAC, school-sponsored advocates and many “Family Friendly” schools, a few small organizations have stepped in to fill the void.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End has been organizing parents at the Blackstone Elementary School for the last several years. This year, those parents participated in a march to the Boston school headquarters in Dudley Square to protest budget cuts. Their mothers were some of the few parents who testified in Spanish before the school committee last year.
The lead organizer, Rafaela Polanco, is a case study in what happens once an immigrant mother learns more about the American system.
When her son entered school in Boston, she wasn’t interested in spending time there. She wanted to meet the teacher and find out what he was learning. That was it.
“The reason I didn’t get involved in the school was that I felt intimidated,” Polanco said in Spanish. “Intimidated because I’m an immigrant, because I don’t speak the language. And I thought my voice couldn’t be heard. I’m an immigrant. I’m Dominican. How important can I be?”
But she changed her mind after meeting a St. Stephen’s organizer who told her how important parent participation is.
“When I met other parents, I realized that there’s an enormous line of families who feel the same,” Polanco said.
Now she recruits mothers to join a two-year-old program called “Parent Mentors” or “Madres Mentoras,” which places mothers in classrooms at the Blackstone so they can help the teacher and learn how the school functions.
The hope is these mothers will be better advocates for their children’s education and join school site councils to influence the direction of their schools.
Joining a school site council can be challenging, even with an understanding of parents’ roles in education and support from experienced organizers.
Claritza Rodriguez wanted her children to retain their ability to speak Spanish. She’d seen other parents lose touch with their kids as they learned in English-only schools and didn’t develop their first language.
She was pleased when she got spots for two of her five children at the Hurley K-8 School in the South End, a dual-language immersion school whose mission is to graduate children who perform at “high academic levels” in English and Spanish, and who “appreciate and understand the contributions of numerous cultures to our society.”
After a few years at the school, she ran for the Hurley’s School Site Council.
“It seemed like my vote was important, that I could improve the school for our children,” she said in Spanish.
Once she got on the council, the school seemed less welcoming to immigrants like her. Rodriguez — who is from the Dominican Republic — said she was the only parent there who couldn’t speak English well. She says she understands English but doesn’t speak it fluently.
The meetings were conducted in English and “no one translated,” she said.
Meeting after meeting, she said, no one translated, even though there were a number of bilingual staff in the meetings.
“I felt rejected,” she said. “I felt like they show a preference for the American parents.”
Rodriguez didn’t run for the council the next year.
The school now offers Spanish interpretation during meetings, according to organizers who helped parents petition the school.
The Hurley does a good job welcoming families and including them in events, Monica Roberts said. The school is good at recruiting parents for leadership roles and is now thinking about how to retain them. But of the seven parents on the Hurley’s School Site Council, only one has a Spanish surname. Nearly three-fourths of the students are Latino.
“So we get folks there. How do you make sure we retain that and ensure some strong diversity?” said Roberts. “They are a school that’s really thinking thoughtfully about … how do we do the foundational work that gets families comfortable with being here in our building and participating?”
Roberts recommends that school councils focus less on fundraising, since not all families feel they can contribute or know people who can.
Hurley parent Angelina Camacho says schools like the Hurley that attract both wealthy parents and parents with much less, have a challenge.
School leaders “have to accept and be appreciative of the assets some parents have, because they’re afraid of losing those resources,” she said.
Camacho said those parents “need to be told, ’Their dollars matter for all of the kids, but their voices do not carry for all of the children.’”
Parents on the Hurley’s school site council did not return emails or phone calls seeking comment.
A Different Way
Given the uneven social dynamics in schools, parents without fundraising skills or who don’t master English may always be at a disadvantage when it comes to influencing the direction of their children’s schools.
It might be time for the district to help parents organize, especially marginalized ones, said Camacho.
“We have a responsibility to stand in the gap until the playing field is leveled,” she said.
Camacho likes the idea of going back to the model that existed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when the district paid for parents and other staff to organize parents full-time.
District support for a parent organizer might not be the crucial ingredient for Latino parents to become more engaged, says Uriarte, who’s been researching the Bilingual Master PAC.
She does agree that parents need to feel safe to speak out and would feel safer as part of a group taking collective action.
But for Uriarte, the key is whether the district is open to hearing independent voices of parents that challenge the district.
“Many parents don’t have the time or energy to do things that are not going to be effective,” Uriarte said. “If they see the structures created disrespect them, they can’t get a word in edgewise, they don’t understand what’s going on, they’re going to disconnect.”
A New Leader
Presented with many of these concerns from parents, advocates, and academics about Boston Public Schools’ perceived lack of commitment to parent engagement, Cassellius sounded eager to work with parents, but noncommittal about changing actual evaluation standards for school leaders.
“Well, we’ll be ramping that up,” she said about parent engagement, in an interview with WGBH News. “You know that is a huge focus of mine. I just don’t think that we can do this work without parents and without their voice.”
If that requires providing “more advocacy and more training … we’ll provide that.”
Cassellius didn’t commit explicitly to evaluating principals’ job performance based on parent engagement, but she said she expects principals will treat parents as “true partners” and said district administrators will be working more closely with school heads “to see if diversity and inclusion is happening at the school site.”
Cassellius also hopes to use places of worship — and even consulates — to reach parents.
And if parents don’t approve of what she’s doing, Cassellius says they’ll be “safe” to complain and challenge the district.
Whether one superintendent can turn around years of relative silence and amplify the voices of Latino families remains to be seen. But the future success of Boston’s Latino children may depend on it.
Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.