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Diana Martinez Why one Latina teacher resigned

August 28, 2018

In a recent editorial, you called on educators to recruit more Latino teachers. Greenwich won’t have a problem doing this. They recruited me four years ago with an attractive salary and an internationally diverse student body that appreciated my bi-cultural perspective. But if the aim is to reduce the achievement gap between Latino and white students, you’ll have to see Latino teachers as more than just a means of translating the town’s message to Spanish-speaking families. You’ll need to help us change the message.

This year, I resigned from teaching for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it became so hard to advocate for the children and families of underserved communities. I hope I can make a difference in another profession.

Let’s face it, we have a president who has painted Latino immigrants broadly as rapists and MS13 members. Our Latino students feel targeted and, unless teachers and schools denounce this racist rhetoric, our Latino students will wonder whether we resent them, too.

But Greenwich Public Schools has made no official statement in contrast to our president. In fact, some immigrant students have felt harassed by Trump-supporting teachers who have made their politics clear. It is hard to stand by and watch this.

From a Latina perspective, very few stories of the Latino experience are incorporated into the curriculum, depriving Latinos of the validation other groups get from seeing the struggle of their people represented in a way that honors their history. Whereas districts like Stamford offer bilingual classes, which allow Latino students to use their Spanish as a bridge into English and help students connect new learning to what makes sense in their own culture, Greenwich eschews the idea of bilingual education. The English-only approach is sold as the fastest way to high test scores, but too many children get left behind when school feels irrelevant.

Latina teachers also see Latino students deprived of special education services and supports that their white peers tend to benefit from, in part because the system is careful not to confuse second language learning issues with learning disabilities. ESL and students of color shouldn’t be overrepresented in special education as we plug along with our curriculum, ignorant of the inherent biases in our educational institutions.

But one study by the U.S. Department of Education done in 2016 found that students of color were actually less likely to receive the special education supports and services received by their white peers for similar learning needs. They concluded that students of color were more likely to be exposed to risks “that themselves increase the risk for disability,” such as lead exposure and low birth weight. Previous studies that raised red flags about putting too many students of color into special education had not corrected for these factors.

When I tried to advocate for Latino children in my class who I suspected had developmental or learning disabilities at the root of their behavioral problems, I was directed to the school protocol. The school protocol is a lengthy process that involves reading and writing interventions that can take years, even as a child becomes at risk for suicide, depression, drug abuse other problems that can result from learning difficulties.

One important intervention is PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), a new program that ironically resulted in many detentions for these at risk students and ultimately involved holding them back from special field trips and other rewards that the other students could enjoy.

Finally, Greenwich students are tracked into groups that end up being fairly homogeneous in terms of race and class. It was impossible to get a Latina student into the honors track because she didn’t do well on the entrance exam, even though her writing was breathtaking.

Let’s level the playing field for children with disabilities who come from low-income families, acting as partners to their parents in order to break down the cultural divide that leads to school failure for these children. Let’s make learning relevant for Latino students and make them feel that schools appreciate the contributions of their people. Let’s find ways to support Latino students rather than to discipline them and let’s reconsider how we track students so that Latinos who can do honors work have a chance to excel.

Then we’ll have more than just a handful of Latino teachers. We’ll have racial and economic justice, and that matters a whole lot more.

Diana Martinez is a Greenwich resident.

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