Editors Note: Teachers@ED profiles some of the hundreds of current and former educators who work at the U.S. Department of Education, and how their experiences in schools inform their work for the agency.
Carlos and Celia Rico had big hopes for their children, which is one reason the couple emigrated from Mexico, and settled in Chicago. José, Carlos and Celia’s oldest, quickly adapted to the new language, culture and climate, and with a combination of support and inspiration from teachers, he became the first person in his family to go to college. Still, Rico never expected that he would one day become the executive director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
“When I first started school, I was one of those students who had a hard time,” Rico said. “My school did not have a bilingual education program; it was one of those sink-or-swim programs. The school didn’t provide support for my parents, and there was no support for me to access the curriculum.”
Founding a School to Help Students Like Him
This all changed when Rico reached high school and he came to know teachers who pushed him to excel. His strongest subjects were math and science; high marks in these areas earned him an engineering scholarship to the University of Illinois. Soon thereafter, he became a high school science teacher. Later on, after having worked in youth development programs, Rico took notice of the power in young people taking responsibility for their education; he decided to harness that power by opening his own community high school, which had a health clinic and provided classes for students learning English, in addition to general academics.
“The motivating factor was not wanting students to face the same obstacles I had faced,” Rico said. “My passion has been to try to design education programs that value students, include their parents and expect high standards from everyone.”
Rico’s charge within ED is to link individuals and organizations from within and outside the education system to meet the local and national challenges faced by Hispanics today and spread the word about education initiatives in early learning, higher education, K-12 and other specific areas that focus on the Hispanic community. He also works to develop relationships with thousands of Hispanic leaders across the country who are implementing these changes.
Most recently, the White House Initiative and the White House Office of Public Engagement brought together more than 500 Hispanic community leaders for a Hispanic Community Action Summit in Los Angeles, the 17th regional summit organized by the office to address important issues such as: funding resources for pre-K-postsecondary education; health care; small business needs; immigration issues; and communication infrastructures among Latino organizations.
Local Leaders Want a Federal Partner
“Leaders on the ground want the federal government to be a partner,” Rico says. “People in the Hispanic community want us to play a role. Some states have cut back on education and it has a big impact on the Hispanic community. People want us to work with them and bring a diverse group of stakeholders to the table.”
Educating Latinos is not only important to their community, Rico emphasizes; it’s critical for the country. In the last two years, Latinos have become the largest minority group in the nation’s schools.
“I’ve seen the power education plays in a kid’s life, regardless of where they come from. Education leads to a better job, and it is a way in which our country can fulfill the promise that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can be successful.” Rico says. “There’s no way of denying that the future of America depends on the education attainment of Hispanics.”
Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.