As a state, Texas is facing a unique challenge when it comes to education. The size, growth rate, and makeup of the state’s population is “out of step with the rest of the country”. Texas is seeing triple the growth in the number of school children versus the rest of the country.
Travis, specifically, is one of the fastest growing counties in the state, especially in the pre-k and elementary school population, where a good grounding is required so that these kids don’t start to have behavioral issues or the desire to dropout of school further on down the road, in middle and high school. This growing population is only one of the challenges that the Austin Independent School District (AISD) faces.
According to Sylvia Acevedo, the current AISD population (approximately 84,000) can be summarized on two hands, with each finger representing ten percent of the population. The approximate population breakdown can be simplified as follows: one finger represents the African-American population, one finger represents the Asian population, the Anglo population is represented on three fingers, and Hispanics are represented by a whole hand, approximately half of the entire population.
Of the Hispanic population, most of these children are U.S. citizens, but about half of them (24,000) are Engligh Language Learners (ELLs) who spoke Spanish as a first language. These school children have Spanish-speaking parents, whose knowledge of the U.S. educational system may not be as high as English-speaking parents. This is because many of them were not brought up in the U.S. education system and the school districts do not have enough resources to offer Spanish-speaking parents. It is a challenge to find bilingual staff to translate for the parents when they need to speak to their child’s teacher, a counselor, or someone in the school’s office.
Acevedo believes that our educational system depends on parent involvement. Not only that, but, in general, parents are a child’s first teachers. Therefore, it is important to educate the parents on the importance of keeping their children in school and to encourage them to learn English, meanwhile retaining their Spanish language. This is a big departure from what was taught generations ago, when schoolchildren were punished for speaking Spanish at school.
A former rocket scientist and the founder of CommuniCard, LLC, Acevedo, an education advocate, created the Para Una Buena Vida (For a Better Life) campaign to help stress how education is important for all. The campaign promotes a college-going culture using three important messages: you can earn at least a million dollars in your lifetime if you graduate from high school, a million more if you graduate from college, and you will have better pay and more opportunites if you speak two or more languages.
These messages are core to Feria Para Aprender, the learning fair that Acevedo started back in 2007 to empower Spanish-speaking parents and teach them how to navigate the U.S. education system. Her recent research found that Spanish-speaking parents could not name more than five universities in the United States. How can they encourage their children to go to college when they can barely more than a handful themselves?
In his first State of the Union address this Wednesday evening, President Barack Obama said that “the best anti-poverty program around is a first class education.” The increase in the number of children living in poverty is another challenge faced by AISD. Many of Austin’s ELL students are on free or reduced lunch.
AISD also has to deal with the high mobility rate of students, with approximately one third of the student population moving every calendar year.
Despite all the challenges, Acevedo pointed out that the positive thing about having so many students is that we will have a large workforce in the future. We need them to be educated and bilingual so that we have a competitive advantage in the global business arena. Not only that, but our growing senior population depends on a high-paying tax base.By Vicky Garza