During National Hispanic Heritage Month, it’s time to move beyond learning about heroes and holidays to examine how communities have responded to policies that impact students and increased students’ academic achievement by making learning more relevant to their daily lives.
When policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric impact Latino students’ learning and their families’ safety, schools that find ways to address trauma can create supportive, secure environments, and develop ways to connect students’ experiences to their learning to increase academic growth.
State policies beginning in 2000, when Arizona voters passed Prop. 203, which eliminated bilingual education and segregated English Language Learners have impacted students’ learning. Soon after, an interpretation of state law in 2005 charged undocumented immigrants for human trafficking for conspiring to smuggle themselves into the United States.
ASBA Video: Hispanic Heritage Month: Cara Martinez, a student’s perspective
Video shot and edited by Fatma Abid/ Arizona School Boards Association
Arizona voters approved Prop. 300 in 2006, which requires undocumented college students to pay out-of-state tuition. Following that, the Legal Arizona Workers Act of 2008 requires employers to use e-Verify to validate immigration status of all new employees and can revoke or suspend business licenses of a company that knowingly hires an undocumented person.
Then in 2010, Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 made it a misdemeanor to not carry immigration papers, made it a crime to transport unauthorized immigrants, and obligated local police to determine immigration status during lawful stops, detentions, or arrests. The day before the law took effect, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton issued a preliminary injunction that prevented some provisions, but a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld police’s right to investigate the immigration status of a person stopped lawfully but said other provisions were pre-empted by federal law.
“SB 1070 was at that time, the culmination of a series of anti-immigrant and anti-Latino policies in Arizona,” said Dr. David Becerra, associate professor at the School of Social Work and associate professor of Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University. “Arizona’s SB 1070 was viewed as so restrictive that it was condemned by United Nations experts working under the mandate of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Those experts stated that the passage of SB 1070 was part of a disturbing pattern of legislative activity hostile to ethnic minorities and immigrants in Arizona.”
How trauma impacts students
“The xenophobic attacks against the Latino community of Arizona affected me every single day of my life. My family we were afraid of even going out, of speaking Spanish for fear of being persecuted for being Latinos. It was just a state of fear,” said Jaime, who now attends college outside of Arizona.
The impact was intense, Jaime said.
“You really lose a kind of sense of confidence in yourself. You feel broken down. You feel bashed around. You feel abused by a state in which you assume would protect you or keep you safe,” Jaime said. “These scars are never going to go away.”
This fallout continues, Dr. Becerra said.
“The combination of state and federal anti-immigration policies, as well as current anti-immigrant rhetoric from politicians and various media outlets have created a hostile environment for Latinos,” Dr. Becerra said.
Latino children who are U.S. citizens or have legal status often have family members or friends in the community who are undocumented, “as a result, previous studies have found that the fear and psychological trauma experienced by family members of those impacted by immigration raids and deportation can also be found in other members of the community, who were not targets of immigration enforcement or deportation,” Dr. Becerra said.
Studies have found that SB 1070 and immigration enforcement strategies, such as community and workplace raids, immigration detention, and deportation, were associated with Arizona Latino students’ increased trauma, fear, psychological distress, lower self-esteem, hypervigilance, depression, increased perception of ethnic discrimination from authorities – including police, school teachers, and school staff, a heightened sense of not belonging even when they are U.S. citizens and more school absences, Dr. Becerra said.
The pervasive fear and psychological trauma experienced by Latino students in Arizona can have adverse effects on cognitive functioning, attention, memory, academic performance, and school‐related behaviors, and that affects “children’s readiness to learn, as well as affect the ability to self-regulate and sustain healthy relationships,” Dr. Becerra said.
School staff often misinterpret students’ trauma-triggered behaviors, which may range from irritable outbursts to internalized symptoms that are less noticeable such as ADHD, conduct disorder, acute stress disorders, depression, anxiety, concentration difficulties, stomach aches, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, aggression and general problems with school performance, Dr. Becerra said.
Why schools are key to helping students
Trauma-informed models of teaching and learning can connect and engage students in the classroom, Dr. Becerra said.
“It is important for children who experience trauma to receive therapy from qualified psychologists, counselors, and/or social workers,” Dr. Becerra said. “Currently, schools in Arizona do not have nearly enough psychologists, counselors, and social workers to work with students who have experienced trauma or have other mental health issues that negatively affect learning.”
Although schools in Arizona are already struggling due to inadequate funding at from the state government, schools are ideally situated to address the issues faced by not just by Latino students and family members, but all students of diverse racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, Dr. Becerra said.
“Since schools are often more centrally located in communities and have a higher sense of trust among community members, schools can help fill the gap in service delivery for children and families who would not otherwise have access to these services as a result of transportation barriers, stigma, and lack of health insurance,” Dr. Becerra said.
Studies have found that schools can more effectively engage immigrant children and children of immigrants, as well as their families, in school-based mental health services when the interventions are culturally responsive, linguistically appropriate, evidence-based, and trauma-informed, Dr. Becerra said.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools and the same program in Spanish and the Mental Health for Immigrants Program have been evaluated to be most effective in the treatment in the reduction of trauma symptoms among immigrant and refugee youth in schools, Dr. Becerra said.
Support from Amberlea Elementary School , teachers and the principal made a huge difference, Jaime said.
“To have people who believed in us, who constantly try to guide us and keep us safe, who constantly made the attempt to ensure that we felt at least some kind of security in a time in which we felt like we were in trouble,” Jaime said.
“It really inspired me to pursue more from education. Not just looking at the bounds of graduating high school, but going beyond high school as well,” Jaime said. “Yes, it was definitely a trying time, but it was these support systems that really carried us through.”
Brian Winefsky, who served as principal at Amberlea Elementary when Jaime was a student, said that seeing students suffer broke his heart and made his “conviction as a principal so much stronger to provide an atmosphere and an environment where you feel safe, and you feel loved, and you feel cared for, and where we promote you.”
“Every student that walks through the doors of school has a very bright future ahead. Sometimes, we have to leave the legal nonsense, the politics, unfortunately stereotypes, and lack of cultural responsiveness and awareness, we need to leave that at the door,” said Winefsky who now serves as principal of Sunset Ridge Elementary School.
Increasing student achievement through relevance
Another way schools have made a difference is by fostering pride in who students are through ethnic studies programs like Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program, said Dr. Nolan Cabrera, professor of Educational Policy Studies and Practice and at University of Arizona.
There’s an extremely strong relationship between taking Mexican American Studies classes and Tucson Unified students’ subsequent academic achievement, including graduation, said Dr. Cabrera, who is also associate professor of American Indian Studies and associate professor of Social/Cultural/Critical Theory at University of Arizona.
“What ethnic studies tries to do is to say OK, this relatively monocultural approach to education that we’ve been experiencing for decades can create some very negative, unintended consequences,” Dr. Cabrera said. “Let us provide these different mirrors for allowing students to see themselves and not only themselves – it’s bigger than themselves – by seeing their communities, there’s also a relevance to the work.”
Ethnic studies “can actually be used as a way of supporting people, who for all intents and purposes haven’t been served by the educational process and leveraging that power of education to really fulfill the promise of educational equity, which is really what a lot of public education was founded on,” Dr. Cabrera said.
Tucson’s MAS program was developed in response to No Child Left Behind, which “shined a light on persistent inequities in the educational opportunities particularly in this case between Latinx students and their white peers within Tucson Unified,” then community activism took the next step saying, “what are we going to do about it?” Dr. Cabrera said.
Arizona Legislators approved a ban Tucson Unified’s Mexican American Studies program in 2010 and former Gov. Jan Brewer signed it into law, yet a version of the courses continue “thanks to a court-appointed monitor overseeing TUSD’S longstanding federal desegregation order, a dark reminder of the district’s own discriminatory past A federal court later ruled that the 2010 ban violated students’ constitutional rights.Today, the program is larger than it’s ever been,” wrote Hank Stephenson in Politico on July 11, 2021.
“There’s been this big push for a kind of feel-good multiculturalism approach to education where ‘Hey, you talk about the cultural background you bring in, and you talk about the cultural background you bring in,’ and it devolves into what they call heroes and holidays or foods and fiestas instead of asking why are all the brown kids performing at lower levels than the white kids in this district?” Dr. Cabrera said. “Heroes and holidays and foods and fiestas has never worked.”
Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program does three critically important things – issues of race and structured racial inequities were centered in the work, students were encouraged to take more than one class by creating the Mexican American Studies department and the courses tie in relevance to students’ current lived experiences, Dr. Cabrera said.
“Analyses that my colleagues and I have done have shown that really the sweet spot of these classes is when students take a two-semester sequence,” Dr. Cabrera said. “Intuitively, that makes a lot of sense, because obviously the more engagement that a student has with the specific subject, the more they’re going to be learning about it and engaged with it.”
Research on San Francisco Unified School District and their ethnic studies program showed virtually identical results to Tucson Unified’s MAS program – there’s a strong relationship between graduation and academic achievement on standardized tests among students who take year-long ethnic studies courses, Dr. Cabrera said.
“Students in Tucson passed their AIMS math tests at higher rates than we would have expected given their previous academic achievement, but there wasn’t a Chicano studies math class,” Dr. Cabrera said. “That’s a really, really strange one, but it might also be one of the most important ones.”
“In some respects, what we’re hypothesizing is that it’s changing students’ relationship to school as a whole as they see more relevance in school, school as a whole isn’t irrelevant,” Dr. Cabrera said. “There are opportunities for engagement even in subject matters where there isn’t a Chicano studies program. That could be potentially one of the biggest findings that we have out of that research.”
How ethnic studies benefit all students
Ethnic studies benefit all students by increasing their cognitive complexity, group consciousness and educational achievement, Dr. Cabrera said.
“It’s a very accurate and meaningful portrayal of the history and social context that we engage in on a daily basis. In particular, by taking race into a very important account, you start to have a more holistic view of what our society is,” Dr. Cabrera said.
A lot of the larger social dissonance that we’ve been seeing lately about Make America Great Again, could be addressed through ethnic studies curricula where students ask, “When was that greatness?” Dr. Cabrera said.
“If you keep going back in time, decade by decade by decade, there are some really, really horrific things that were going on,” Dr. Cabrera said.
People may point to the 1950s, “when a man could feed his family off of one job and the wife could be at home,” yet “that usually meant that women didn’t really have meaningful incorporation into the economic context of our society,” and “when you say men you usually only meant white men because Black men and brown men and indigenous men and Asian American men did not have those same opportunities,” Dr. Cabrera said.
“There’s a massive misremembering about the past and accuracy of our history and where we came from, and we need to be able to reckon with that,” Dr. Cabrera said. “It isn’t just in the past, but in the present, and there are major reasons why. If you look at virtually any social institution, there are many massive inequities along racial ethnic lines, because they were in many respects built into said systems.”
Schools have tried many approaches over the years.
“In the 1990s, we tried the colorblind approach. We tried to say, ‘Hey, you know, let’s just try to treat everyone equally and it will work itself out.’ And you know what? The last two and a half decades has said, ‘No, the empirical evidence has said, it doesn’t work out like that,’ ” Dr. Cabrera said.
“We need to be race conscious both on the individual level to address things, but also on the social structural level to be able to address these massive inequities that we’re dealing with on an everyday basis,” Dr. Cabrera said.
What old-school civics was supposed to do by increasing participation in a pluralistic democracy, is exactly what ethnic studies does, Dr. Cabrera said.
“Ethnic studies can increase educational achievement of systemically underserved communities, and that is critically, critically important,” Dr. Cabrera said. “An equally important component of it is exactly what I said before – that it allows us the opportunity to grapple with systemic racism, which allows us to grapple with what it means to be a pluralistic democracy.”
Democracy as a word comes from the roots demos meaning people and cracy meaning rule, Dr. Cabrera said.
“It is antithetical to the core components of democracy if some people are made more equal than others,” Dr. Cabrera said. “That’s exactly what we have when we have structured inequities.”
“Structured inequities in society whether they be along the lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., they are antithetical to democracy,” Dr. Cabrera said. “If we’re part of this larger democratic process, ethnic studies is a critically important component of being able to realize these larger values that we pretend to profess.”
By examining policies and working to change structured inequities, communities and the schools that serve them increase students’ academic achievement by making learning more relevant to their daily lives.