Language and Learning on the Border

The RESPECT Project, a vision for transforming teaching and leading, is the result of hundreds of conversations with thousands of educators across the country. The Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAFs) are continuing to talk with teachers throughout the country about the RESPECT Project and have reached out to other important stakeholders as well. This month the Fellows travelled to Arizona and New Mexico, including a visit by Kareen Borders, Toni Hull, Cindy Apalinski with a group of stakeholders in Columbus, N.M., (Deming Public School District).

School Crosswalk Sign“Unique”, “determined”, “challenging”, “amazing place.” These are just some of the phrases that parents, teachers, administrators and community members used to describe Columbus Elementary School in Columbus, N.M., during RESPECT discussions last month.

A border school located three miles from the Mexican border, Columbus faces unique challenges that include students who are predominantly living in poverty and who are English language learners. The remoteness of the school from students‘ homes also places extra pressure on educators and families.

Despite the American promise of equal opportunity, children of poverty and children of color often lack equal access to educational opportunities. Secretary Arne Duncan recently addressed the opportunity gap when he said, “In America, in 2012, children of color not only confront an achievement gap, they confront an opportunity gap that, too often, is unacceptably wide.” Yet, we found Columbus to be overflowing with hope, happiness, academic rigor and a commitment to bicultural education.

For all of the real challenges to ensuring educational equity, we saw examples of culturally responsive education, rigorous classroom instruction, and structures that are reducing the opportunity gap.  Principal Hector Madrid affirmed that these children deserve the best education. “We do everything we can to make education possible for our students since they are American citizens,” he said.

Classes that include dual language instruction, heritage studies, and rigorous core classes provide a holistic approach that includes recognition of the uniqueness of each student along with high expectations. Teachers plan together and present lessons in Spanish and English. During a math class visit, I observed first-graders working collaboratively on math problems, working one on one with the teacher and principal, and explaining their answers to each other.

When asked what she thought of her school, one first-grader responded, “I like it here. I get to learn and teach my friends. I’ll show you.” Those three simple sentences spoke volumes to me. She feels safe and nurtured in her school and quite simply likes it. She recognizes that she is learning and also has the opportunity to work collaboratively with her peers–a valuable skill. And, she holds the belief that her learning is valuable and can and should be communicated to others.

Being a part of two cultures, two languages, two countries, will give these children a unique grounding—one that definitely allows them to bring multiple perspectives to the table. One of the roundtable participants summed it up by saying, “There’s a lot of respect in Columbus. We are bi-national and bi-cultural.” This recognition of the importance of multicultural perspectives is a step in the right direction of eliminating the opportunity gap.

As classes ended, I watched the children as they bounced out of class, skipped to the buses, laughed and chatted while swinging backpacks, to return home for the evening. In the morning, they will be welcomed by teachers, principals, and an entire educational community committed to closing their opportunity gap.

Dr. Kareen Borders

Dr. Kareen Borders is a Regional Teaching Ambassador Fellow from the Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor, Washington.

View a video of Principal Hector Madrid’s feedback about the RESPECT Project.

Community Partners Share Responsibility to Support K-12 Schools

When it comes to increasing student achievement in K-12 schools, Secretary Duncan believes everyone has a role to play – teachers, parents, higher education leaders, business executives, community partners and the students themselves.

In April, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the Department of Education, and the Corporation for National and Community Service launched “Together for Tomorrow.” This initiative is working to engage local communities to meet the challenge to turn around persistently low-performing schools. The goal is to promote a community culture where everyone takes and shares responsibility for improving these low-performing schools.

In communities across the country, nonprofits and business leaders are working together to improve education.

Under Secretary Martha Kanter and Brenda Girton-Mitchell, the director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, recently travelled to Minneapolis where they met with civic leaders and educators to discuss their work to close the achievement gap. You can read Under Secretary Kanter’s reflections on the trip here.