Leadership Series: Making the Case for Latino Leadership

Michele
Image by socalatinos.org

Within a generation, California and many parts of the nation will have to depend on well-prepared Latino leaders to ensure continued social and economic growth and stability.

Here’s what needs to happen: Smart, talented, and compassionate Latinos need to seek out leadership roles in business, education, politics, and community service, and, the business, education, political, and community service sectors need to seek out smart, talented, and compassionate Latino leaders.

It’s a simple formula.

The term Latino leader isn’t limited to those who represent just Latino interests. Latinos are capable of representing people of all backgrounds, be it racial, ethnic, social, or economic. When I use Latino leader, I’m talking about a leader who happens to be Latino, but provides leadership for an entire community.

Making the case to develop Latino leaders to be stewards of our community’s economic, political, and educational health is in the numbers.

According to the California Department of Education, 53% of students who attend public school today are Latino. That means that in the next twenty years or so, one out of every two workers in California will look like us. Economics require that those of working age carry the financial burden of keeping a community solvent.

To ensure a robust economy, it’s important that breadwinners represent the spectrum of workers from frontline employees to executives. If more than half of the population is under-educated and unprepared, thus under-employed, the economic impact on the state’s future could be catastrophic. That’s why it’s imperative that Latinos are prepared for all levels of employment, including leadership roles.

Here are some more numbers: Despite representing over half of the students in California, only 9% of college graduates, 18% of teachers, and 6% of education administrators are Latino. So what’s the deal? Our school system is preparing more than half of its students to be service sector workers, not managers and decision-makers. The better question is: Why is this happening?

I got an inside look on how school systems work while serving on the board of trustees at the largest high school district in California. With 26,000 students and a $220 million dollar budget, it’s a pretty big and complex operation. The district serves a majority of Latino neighborhoods in the city. Its demographics match the state’s numbers on Latino students, teachers, and administrators.

The most influential interest groups, employee bargaining groups and parent organizations, are mostly led by non-Latinos. Only one of the five current school trustees is Latino. This dynamic reflects the typical school district in California where the overwhelming majority of decision-makers doesn’t demographically represent the majority of its students.

The problem with this is that education leaders who aren’t Latino are more susceptible to making decisions based on preconceived notions about Latinos. Sociologists call this phenomenon inherent bias. These biases impact public policy decisions, class schedule assignments, student disciplinary action, and the allocation of resources, all of which results in disproportionate harm to half of the students.

I met the full force of the impact of how an unbalanced demographic relationship between students, teachers, administrators, and policy-makers in 2010 when I served as board president. A few years earlier, the district chapter of the student group Californians for Justice met with me to advocate for a policy that would make graduation requirements the same as eligibility standards for acceptance to University of California and California State University schools.

Makes sense, right? I thought so. When I was elected board president, I excitedly began to reach out to administrators, teachers, and my board colleagues to get buy-in for a policy proposal that connected high school graduation requirements to college prerequisites. I was met with immediate resistance. The stumbling block was a requirement to complete Algebra II.

Administrators counseled against moving too fast raising concerns about the lack of student preparation coming from middle school, especially schools with large Latino populations. Math teachers fiercely opposed the idea. The teacher’s union president, an Algebra teacher, sat across the table from me in a coffee shop lecturing with authority that “these kids” can’t do Algebra II.

Conversations with other trustees didn’t fare any better. Two of them wanted to “study” the issue further, a standard tactic to delay a policy proposal to death. One trustee expressed concerns that the policy would “force” every student to be on a college track. What about the students who wanted to learn a trade so they could begin working right after high school graduation, he asked. I knew who he was talking about.

Was this a case of inherent bias? You better believe it. Each one of these decision-makers raised concerns about Latino students’ ability to succeed in a rigorous academic environment. But I disagreed. I was one of those students. My high school counselor recommended that I consider learning a trade instead of going to college. Fortunately, that was a non-starter for my parents.

Because of my experience, I didn’t have any preconceived notions about Latino kids. There was no inherent bias driving my decision to fight for the more rigorous graduation requirements. I figured if I could complete a college track curriculum and succeed in college so could other students who grew up in neighborhoods like mine. So, I charged ahead to change the policy.

I learned that Latino leaders can deliberate about decisions without the filter of inherent bias in the way. With Latinos serving as decision-makers in business, politics, education, and community engagement, half of the population will have more opportunities to contribute to the success of the entire state.

The other half of the population will benefit as well from this kind of leadership. After a long and contentious campaign to raise graduation requirements in 2010, a board majority led the way to approving a policy that made college-prep classes the curriculum for all students enrolling in a district high school.

The Class of 2015 was the first class in the district’s history to complete a four-year program with every graduate eligible to apply to a University of California and California State University college.

That’s precisely why smart, talented, and compassionate Latinos need to seek out leadership roles and that’s why the community could use a bunch of smart, talented, and compassionate Latino leaders.

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Next time on the ESEReport.com Leadership Series: We’ll explore the success of an institution that isn’t hampered by inherent bias.

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