Did you know that in the 49 U.S. states and Virgin Islands School Board Associations, there are over 90,000 members that are responsible for educating over 50 million children? According to the National School Board Association, approximately 9 out of 10 students receive public education. With over 4.8 million English Learners (ELs), which is equivalent to ~10% of the total K-12 student population enrolled in schools, the linguistic and cultural diversity within education is growing. However, when you look at your local school board, do the members reflect the diversity of the communities they serve?
According to the U.S. Department of Education (2014-15), Hispanic and Latino students represent more than 75% of ELs, which is approximately 25% of the total student population. While statistical data provides insight on the growing number of ELs and the need for increasing support, a perfect example of the need for diverse representation on School Boards with members who intimately understand the challenges these students face can be found in the latest episode of “Language is Your Superpower” podcast series.
Johanna López became the first Latina to become a member of the Orange County Public School (OCPS) Board in Florida in its 170-year history. Ms. López has served for over two decades as the eyes, ears, and voice of students, parents, and educators—especially those who look like her and who experience the most disparities. She champions minority student empowerment with a special focus on English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), supporting undocumented students, responding to their current needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and advocating for the provision of better treatment for teachers and non-instructional staff.
Historically, school boards have been led predominantly by members who did not reflect the cultural and linguistic demographics of their districts, but the tides are slowly changing. In a recent article, “Change Is Already Here”, Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) Steering Committee Chair, Jacinto Ramos Jr. states “School boards today are serving a population of students reflective of a major demographic shift in American schools. The country is now more racially and ethnically diverse but also seeing more economic inequality.” The fact remains that the demographics in the U.S. have changed and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Therefore, to ensure that School Board members understand the unique challenges of diverse children and create equitable reform that is reflective of their unique needs, there must be cultural and linguistic representation.
Students who are learning English should be empowered to recognize the value of speaking another language as they continue to improve their command of English. In today’s global economy, being multilingual is a high-demand skill. Students who work toward proficiency in another language should be encouraged to pursue the Seal of Biliteracy, an award in the form of a seal on a diploma or transcript that recognizes high school graduates who have attained high levels of proficiency in English and one or more world languages. It recognizes the value of language diversity and acknowledges the effort involved in and importance of learning a language. Having ELs obtain the Seal in their first language and in English will arm them with the credentials to pursue academic and professional opportunities where language skills are of paramount importance.
Tune into the podcast with Johanna López here.