How suburban schools in new Latinx diasporas are responding to Latinx newcomers
The educational experiences and academic achievement of Latinx students in the United States has garnered much attention and research. However, this research often takes place in urban areas and is framed with a deficit lens. This is despite the fact that most Latinx students are already attending suburban schools, and their numbers are growing (Frey, 2015, 2018). Further, Latinxs are increasingly dispersing throughout the United States, creating new Latinx diasporas (NLDs) in places where large numbers of non-Indigenous Latinxs haven’t historically settled before. Moreover, education researchers often place the onus of poor academic attainment on Latinx students and ignore external forces, such as social conditions or the school factors as an institution at large. However, past research has found that external forces, such as school context, and interpersonal relationships and interactions between school staff and students, play a critical role in students’ postsecondary achievement (Lewis-McCoy, 2014), particularly for Latinx students (Domínguez, 2021).
The suburbs are changing, and they are an increasingly important place to study the contemporary educational experiences of Latinx students (Rodriguez & González Ybarra, 2020). In order to take context into account to better understand the educational experiences of Latinx students in the United States, it is essential to understand where Latinx students are currently attending schools. Contrary to popular belief, since 2000, the majority of Latinxs (59%) live in the suburbs rather than outside of them, and this number is increasing; thus, the majority of Latinx students already attend suburban schools (Frey, 2015, 2018). Further, Frey (2018) identifies 145 NLDs throughout the country. Currently, Latinxs make up less than 16% of the population in these areas and overall, these new destinations only contain 7.4% of all U.S. Latinxs. However, Latinxs’ rate of growth in these new destinations is what makes them distinct from other areas: during 2000-10, the Latinx population increased by 119% and accounted for at least 86% of the overall population gain in these new destinations (Frey, 2018). So, like their growth in the suburbs, even though Latinxs make up a small percentage in NLDs, they are increasing at a significant pace.
Place is a critical contextual factor that is often missing in education research. Place includes local racial histories and political economies (Smolarek, 2020), which, along with a place’s specific characteristics and infrastructures, influences a community’s response to newcomers and newcomers’ experiences (Flippen & Farrell-Bryan, 2021), including, I argue, schools’ reception to newcomers. American suburbs, in general, have a specific history. Omi and Winant’s (2015) notion of a “racial project” is useful to conceptualize the origins of suburbs and how this affects the educational experiences of Latinx students in suburban schools in NLDs today. They define a racial project as: “simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial identities and meanings, and an effort to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular racial lines” (Omi & Winant, 2015, p.125). Many researchers have argued that suburbs were a racial project built to exclude minoritized people through policies at both macro and micro levels of government in conjunction with everyday individual actions (Diamond et al., 2020; Frankenberg & Orfied, 2012b; Turner, 2020). The consequences of suburbs as a racial project are real and negatively affect the educational experiences of Latinx and other minoritized students today. It is also important to keep in mind that Omi and Winant (2015) argue that racial projects are not static and are experienced differently depending on place. The suburbs are not a monolith, and there is a prevailing perception that suburban public schools are wealthy and well-resourced. Though this is not the case: suburban schools are not heterogeneously wealthy (Hussar et al., 2020), and racial segregation still exists both between and within suburban public schools (Frey, 2018; Lewis & Diamond, 2015), particularly for Latinx students (Frankenberg et al., 2019). Several barriers I will go over next prevent the suburbs from creating positive educational experiences for Latinx students.
Examining the emerging literature on this topic, I argue that suburban public schools in new Latinx diasporas (NLDs) are not meeting the needs of their growing influx of Latinx students in at least two areas, which have implications for Latinx students’ educational experiences.
First, there is a lack of bilingual education policies in suburban schools in NLDs, and those that exist are often implemented unevenly and in an improvisational manner. In terms of resources, many school districts in the literature did not hire ESL teachers, interpreters or support staff to accommodate the needs of ELLs (Ayscue, 2016; Hamman, Wortham, & Murillo, 2015). They often hired from within their existing pool of teachers, many of whom did not have the credentials nor desire for these new positions (Brezicha & Hopkins, 2016; Harklau & Colomer, 2015). Overall, a lack of resources and support prevented successful implementation of bilingual education policies for Latinx students in suburban schools in NLDs. I found that school staff’s deficit language ideologies spurred low expectations and inaccurate representations of Latinx ELLs, which may impact their ability to live up to their full potential (Gallo et al., 2014)
Second, teachers in suburban schools in NLDs need more clarity and knowledge around Latinx students’ and their families’ experiences, both inside and outside the classroom, to better understand how these experiences interact to affect students’ educational experiences, and consequently create space for Latinx students. In the studies I reviewed, teachers lacked the racial literacy to understand Latinx students’ experiences both inside and outside the classroom. More importantly, teachers failed to recognize how these experiences interact. Further, though this is under-researched (Stacy et al., 2015), the studies I explored shows that teachers often fail to create a sense of belonging and make space for Latinx students within suburban schools in NLDs. Latinx students often felt that their realities and experiences did not figuratively have space within their school. Latinx students felt that teachers often did not make space in the classroom for students’ immigration and transnational experiences, whether they were real or imagined (Link et al., 2017; Rodriguez & González Ybarra, 2020).. Latinx students also often felt that they did not have access to literal space within their schools: they reported being excluded from certain school spaces and amenities that they perceived as reserved for White students (Raible & Irizarry, 2015).
Missing from the evidence and research above, which briefly detail the ways in which suburban schools are not serving Latinx students and their families, are firsthand accounts of Latinx students about their own educational experiences. In order to better understand their experiences, we need to understand the interactions between Latinx students (and their families), and school staff (Lewis-McCoy, 2014), as well as school staff’s perceptions of Latinx students. The outcomes of these interactions (by which I mean the school’s contextual factors and its impact on everyday, interpersonal interactions within the schools) affects students’ access to resources, achievement, and their school experiences (Lewis-McCoy, 2014).
One way I have attempted to better understand other Latinx students’ experiences in a suburban NLD is through working with Latinx students at a community center in Marshall. (I say “other” as I too attended a school in a suburban NLD and have only recently realized that this is an increasingly common experience; despite all of the changes and growth in the suburbs that has been documented by demographers, the overwhelming majority of education research on Latinxs in the past two decades takes place in urban areas, as is generally the case in education research (Diamond & Posey-Maddox, 2020; Tyler et al., 2016)). Marshall (a pseudonym) is an example of a suburban NLD in the Northeast. Located in the affluent, mostly White suburban county, Marshall is 27% Latinx (and increasing) and 40% White, with a median household income of $54,409 (US Census Bureau). Meanwhile, the county in which Marshall is located is 79% White and 6% Latinx, with a median household income is $93,518 (US Census Bureau). While most students at this community center live and attend schools in Marshall, some students attend other school districts within the county.
At the community center, one way I work with middle and high school students is through a program called youth participatory action research (YPAR). YPAR provides youth with opportunities to identify and research social problems affecting their lives and, through youth-adult relationships, advocate and find ways to rectify these problems (Cammarota & Fine, 2010; Domínguez, 2021). Moreover, YPAR situates youth as knowledge experts of their own experiences and communities, and shows them how to recognize their own cultural capital as valuable. In their review, Domínguez (2021) found that YPAR helps Latinx students specifically to “expose and understand the school-related barriers that stifle their secondary education experience” (p. 11).
Over the past two years, students have shared several experiences that reflect the literature above, and then some. In terms of racial literacy, students have reported that they don’t see themselves in the curriculum, in their teachers, or in their classes. For example is a story from Dee, a Latinx twelfth grade student attending a school district outside of Marshall within the same county, that better reflected the county as a whole: Dee’s school district is 70% and 3% Latinx, with a median household income of $100,901 (US Census Bureau). A talented dancer, Dee wanted to choreograph and perform a dance at her school for día de los muertos, but she was nervous to ask her teachers, as there was no Latinx dance club at her school and she would need the support from the school to create one. The other students in the YPAR class who attended the high school at Marshall shared that there were multiple Latinx dance clubs at their school, and thought Dee had the right to create one at her school and encouraged Dee to ask her teachers. Dee asked around and gained the support of several other students. When she asked her teacher about creating a Latinx dance club, the teacher responded that they wouldn’t be able to do so because of COVID and the physical interactions the dance club would entail. Dee recounted, “I didn’t really understand why because sports were going on and there’s more physical interaction in that… I felt at the time that she wasn’t very supportive of it.” Further, Dee noted that the teacher “didn’t ask to see what were the opportunities” and the teacher didn’t explore other ways she could support Dee’s idea of creating the first Latinx dance club at her school.
Dee shared that she was sad, but not surprised by the outcome. I argue that Dee sensed that there wasn’t a space at her school to celebrate the intersection of her culture and passion, as given by her past and present experiences within her school, through her “facultad.” Anzaldúa (2007) defines facultad as: “the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface” (p. 60). People who are more likely to develop this sense are, “those who do not feel psychologically or physically safe in the world” (Anzaldúa, 2007, p. 60). Unfortunately, Dee’s experience is not uncommon throughout the suburbs. When Rodriguez and González Ybarra (2020) look at two different, well-regarded suburban schools (such as Dee’s) in an NLD, they found that, “Latinx youth articulated their experiences in suburban schools and expressed a desire for more…teachers that affirmed their thoughts and positionalities” (Rodriguez & González Ybarra, 2020, p. 8).
Students in the YPAR class have also shared frustrations with the language barrier, or moreover, the lack of bilingual staff and supports at their schools within Marshall and the county at large. One eighth-grade student, Valeria, who attends the same school district as Dee, once noted that she would feel “safer” if more students at her school spoke Spanish. She was also able to reflect on several past experiences where she was embarrassed to speak Spanish at school, and that her parents often aren’t able to attend her parent-teacher conferences as there wasn’t always an interpreter available. Her friend Ava, an eighth grade student in Marshall, on the other hand, didn’t have many negative experiences around the language barrier, as a large portion of her peers speak Spanish. However, according to the director of the community center at Marshall, several families in the past have expressed that the lack of bilingual staff and resources at their children’s school was one major reason that prevented parents from being as involved as they would like to be in their children’s education. A recent incident at Ava’s school showed that while she was able to see herself in her peers, this wasn’t necessarily the case with the school staff. One day, Ava needed urgent mental health resources from the school, and instead the staff were dismissive and demanded she be picked up. Without the staff being able to communicate with her mom, all adults were left confused and unable to help Ava as quickly as she needed it. After the fact, Ava was able to reflect on this experience and her main takeaways were that the teachers at her school needed better mental health training, understanding, and resources to help other students at her school who may be experiencing the same things she is. She was aptly able to connect her individual incident, which needn’t warrant her getting sent home, to the larger systematic issues within her school.
Though not a catch-all remedy, YPAR is an important tool to uncover and explore the counternarratives of Latinx youth: “rather than positioning students as merely objects who experience inequality in schools, the process of accessing research and forming research questions makes a positional shift toward viewing students as subjects of transformative change” (Fals-Borda & Rahman, 1991). The examples above from the community center are just two that come to mind when I think of how we can better serve Latinx students who attend suburban schools in NLDs. I am drawn to these two examples from my YPAR class because the students were, implicitly or explicitly, able to examine their personal interactions with school staff and consider the school demographics, policies, and systems at play that affected these specific interactions and their overall school experiences. Moreover, they were able to reflect and make their own recommendations to make the school a better and safer place for all students!
I agree with Lewis-McCoy (2014), who calls for a deeper examination of the experiences of minoritized students in suburban schools. I believe that to better understand what it means to be Latinx in U.S. schools, we need to pay attention to how context (school and community demographics, racial histories, etc.) impacts interpersonal interactions between school staff and Latinx students (and their families), and how this ultimately impacts Latinx students’ access to (and interpretation) of resources, and educational achievement, experiences, and dreams.
This essay is an adapted, condensed, and updated version of the author’s master’s thesis presented to the faculty of the Education, Culture and Society program of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
Melissa is the oldest daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, from Los Angeles by way of Chicago living in Philadelphia, thinking about the intersections of Latinidad, place, and education.
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