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Biden taps 2 Del Valle High grads for Hispanic education commission

El Paso's Noel Candelaria, right, greets President Joe Biden at Luis Muñoz-Marín Elementary School in Philadelphia on March 11.
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz
El Paso's Noel Candelaria, right, greets President Joe Biden at Luis Muñoz-Marín Elementary School in Philadelphia on March 11.

Two of the 21 members of a presidential commission recently appointed to explore education equity and other issues affecting Hispanics are graduates of El Paso’s Del Valle High School.

President Joe Biden announced the creation of the President’s Advisory Commission on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics on Sept. 30. The members include Noel Candelaria and Cristóbal Rodríguez, products of Lower Valley neighborhoods served by Del Valle High School.

Rodríguez graduated from Del Valle in 1996 and is now associate dean of equity, inclusion and community engagement at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College of Arizona State University. 

Candelaria graduated from Del Valle in 1994 and went on to be a special education teacher in the Ysleta Independent School District. He currently is secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association and lives in Austin. 

El Paso Matters asked Candelaria and Rodríguez to discuss their roles on the commission. (Answers have been edited for brevity.)

What are your key goals for this commission?

Candelaria: Take a deep dive into what the data is telling us about inequities that exist systemically within our schools and communities that disproportionately impact communities of color and discuss solutions that are about lifting the entire community that supports every student and their families. My goal is to bring recognition and develop solutions that are student centered with an understanding that student success is dependent on much more than what we can provide within the  seven plus hours they are in school and is defined by much more than a standardized test score. It us about how we use and leverage local, state, and national resources to invest wholistically in a community to lift the entire community, which includes their neighborhoods, parks, infrastructure, job training and opportunities for their parents and them as they transition from K-12 to higher education or the work force to lift the entire community. 

Rodríguez: While the commission does have specific goals of providing advice to the president through the secretary of education pertaining to educational equity and economic opportunity for the Latino community, it is ultimately a commission to leverage expertise and research that will inform advancing equality in educational and economic opportunities. It is important to note that this commission is exceptionally unique as it represents education, academic, and industry leaders in order to provide a more robust and systemic approach to educational and economic equality for the Latino community.

Cristóbal Rodríguez teaches an educational leadership course at Arizona State University. (Photo courtesy of Cristóbal Rodríguez)

What are the unique challenges facing Hispanic students in the United States, particularly coming out of the pandemic?

Rodríguez: One of the greatest challenges, and evermore coming out of the pandemic, is that many of us assume that Latino students in our communities have equal educational opportunity leading to their career pathways. Unfortunately, educational opportunities and resources do in fact vary by a student’s economic status and racial/ethnic identity. 

If college readiness is reflected by a student’s high school resources to enroll in advanced placement or higher level math and science courses, the Civil Rights Data Collection tells us that Latino students are three times less likely or have less opportunity to enroll in such high school courses when compared to white students. 

For example, what has shaped my work and research has been highlighted by my experiences at Camino Real Middle School and at Del Valle High School when only a limited number of us had the opportunity to enroll in eighth-grade algebra or in calculus in grade 12. The same is not the case in some Texas public high schools that have more upper income and white students and offer four to five times the number of such courses. I distinctly remember my friends in school like Maribel or Luis, who I considered to be as smart or smarter than I, but were not selected to enroll in such courses because of limited resources (inequities). 

This commission will allow us to focus on advancing educational opportunity and access and overall educational equity for our Latino communities given our rich histories, and who we are culturally and linguistically. 

Candelaria: Some of the unique challenges we have seen is disproportionate impact regarding infrastructure and the barriers related to the overwhelming majority of households in the Hispanic community that were front line workers. It meant that Hispanic students had limited to no access to the internet when everything went remote and a lot of the access they had was often on a handheld device as opposed to home connection. Many had to share access and devices with siblings in the same household. 

Because Hispanic parents were more likely to be front line workers, they were not at home with their children, were at higher risk of illness and death, which led to a higher rate of trauma without access to adequate health care and mental health support. A combination of this plus language barriers at home as well as language acquisition that often occurs in social settings such as the school which were limited due to the pandemic. It has created an additional barrier to overcome as well as academic gaps that will require additional investment from every level, especially the federal government in how they partner with state departments of education to allocate additional resources to communities of color, especially the Hispanic community which is the largest community of color in our nation’s public schools.

What lessons can the rest of the country learn from El Paso when it comes to educating Hispanic children?

Candelaria: El Paso, especially my home district of Ysleta, has taken a strengths-based approach to educating Hispanic students, especially using the Spanish language as an asset instead of a deficit. From dual language to embracing the binational and bicultural richness of the border, it has created an environment and community where embracing and learning multiple languages carries into the school community. 

Having a university like UTEP in the city that also recognizes the richness of language and culture adds to the experience in higher education for the community. Many teachers like myself who graduated from the College of Education at UTEP return to teach in the communities in which we were raised. This saturation of teachers who are from the community adds to the student experience for our children in our schools. 

Rodríguez: It is fascinating that in El Paso we do indeed find the highest levels of excellence, especially related to our unique cultural and linguistic experiences that automatically prepare us for a global society and a greater shared space across all communities.

I was blessed with padres Mexicanos, who raised me with hard-working immigrant ethics and into a multicultural and multilingual space that allowed me to navigate across spaces and in between spaces with a Borderlands consciousness that came from living and learning on both sides of a Rio Grande. While it is easy to comprehend how growing up in a bicultural, bilingual, and binational space does in fact influence cognitive and problem-solving abilities, the skills needed to navigate and negotiate multiple spaces are additional assets naturally experienced in a rich space like El Paso. 

The lesson therefore for the nation is to recognize the rich assets that our Latino children do bring to our schools and institutions, and how we leverage that to advance our communities and society overall through educational equity and overall equality.

This article first appeared on El Paso Matters and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Article Topic Follows: Education

El Paso Matters

El Paso Matters is a member-supported nonpartisan media organization that uses journalism to expand civic capacity in our region.

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