My niece is in the first grade and this weekend I helped her finish her homework. She had to complete a one-page report on capuchin monkeys and create a habitat in a shoebox depicting the monkeys in their natural environment. We spent time on the Web looking at videos and investigating what the monkeys ate and where they lived. We scavenged my yard for twigs, nuts and berries, and then raided the leftover Halloween decorations for spiders to include in the habitat. It was an incredibly educational experience — for both of us.
My niece is fortunate. Her well-educated mother has a demanding, yet flexible job that allows her to arrange her schedule to help her daughter with her school work every night. My niece is even enrolled in extra tutoring a few days a week to improve her reading and I often give her fun, educational software games that engage her critical thinking skills.
There is no doubt my niece will go to college. Going to college is a given because those around her have instilled this expectation from the time she could stand. My niece has T-shirts and stuffed animals from a diverse array of colleges and universities. She has visited several college campuses and knows several Latina college professors. When she mentions doing something when she grows up, her mother is quick to point out it will be after she graduates from college. Her mother has also already figured how to pay for her education.
My niece knows college is possible and has a support system that will ensure she receives every opportunity to reach her potential. We’re already fostering her expectation of going to college, preparing her academically and investing to pay for her college education. What keeps me up at night is not whether my niece will go to college or not, but the knowledge that too many Latino youth do not have a similar support system that will guarantee a trajectory to college.
It is too easy to place the blame for the lack of a support system on parents or teachers but the task at hand is less about placing blame and more about creating systemic change. Less than 20 percent of Latino adults 25 and over have an associate degree or higher, so their knowledge of college and their ability to have a “kitchen table” conversation about college options may be limited. Further, with increasing academic requirements, class sizes and work-force demands, teachers and parents are challenged to develop a support system that serves every student’s needs well.
What would systemic change that supports Latino students look like? While my professional work is focused on higher education policy and practices supporting college completion, I know college preparation begins from the time an adult first interacts with a child. The expectations, the support, the ability to dream of future careers and the commitment to contribute to their community are either fostered or limited by those of us who surround a student. For me, effective systemic change will ensure every child, especially those less-privileged, has a support system that assures them a college education is in their future.
Deborah A. Santiago is vice president for policy and research for Excelencia in Education.