This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.” These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.
In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?
Our mission at Camino Nuevo is to prepare students to succeed in life; we want our kids to be compassionate leaders, critical thinkers, and problem solvers and to thrive in a culturally-connected and changing world. But we can’t do this work alone. We need families to be our partners. That’s why, from the beginning, when we opened our first school, one of our priorities was institutionalizing an authentic parent engagement program with a robust menu of support services. We try to get to know families and understand their needs. When a family needs help, our staff connects them with existing support services in our community. Our commitment to families is paying off: Nearly 100 percent of our students graduate and are college bound.
There is a perception that running an effective parent engagement and support services program costs millions of dollars. However, it’s all about the partnerships and how schools integrate the support structures into the day. For example, our schools are able to offer mental health counseling because we partner with a nonprofit mental health provider in the community. We also partner with graduate schools that provide us with interns. Through this partnership model, we can provide services to about 2,000 youth at a fraction of the total cost. We have similar partnerships for our students to have access to the arts, science, mentoring, and afterschool programming. These resources and services are available in many communities.
Without dedicated funding available, so many schools feel like they have to choose between academic supports and mental health supports. Why not just rely on community agencies to respond to these needs?
Schools don’t have to provide every direct service. However, it is time that schools embrace collaboration and coordination. As educators, we know when families are struggling because a family member will turn to a teacher or staff member they trust to ask for help. Sometimes we find out [about a need] because a student is acting out due to the stress or trauma imposed by a family’s situation. That’s when we can connect those families with support agencies. We’ve had situations, for example, when a child’s family member has been deported, our staff has connected the student and their family to support services because we know how traumatic this situation can be for everyone. We do the same when we hear of a family who may be at risk of being evicted from their home. Everyone — from school leaders to custodians to office assistants – is trained on the referral process as well as our partnership philosophy. So, if a school’s office manager hears about a family in need, that person knows something can be done about it and knows who can connect the family to the services they need.
When we grow up in under-served communities and teach/lead in those same communities, we want to provide our students more access than we had. Is that enough? Does today’s generation of (insert your demographic here) need something different than we did?
It gives me pause when I hear people say “Is that enough?” What is enough? What does that mean? Ten years ago I was meeting with a program officer who asked when our work would be “done” in the MacArthur Park community. [laughter]
What’s happening here, in terms of the consequences of poverty, is so beyond what we can do as a school. When I think about what is enough, I know that school is not enough. We have a lot more to do and we need a lot more of us to do it. I believe that we need to create culturally reflective environments where our children are seeing themselves, and who they can become, on a daily basis. As People of Color, we come into the education space and some stay for a few years, others stay longer. I don’t think we are doing enough in diversifying the education workforce. I believe we need to do more to prepare people of color for college success so that we can recruit more teachers of color, more leaders of color in education and education adjacent fields.
It’s important that our communities support more of us coming back in some way. It doesn’t mean that you have to come back and live in the same community. You can “come back” in different ways – teach or lead in a school site, work in an education nonprofit. Our kids need to see us come back and inspire them. When they see people who look like them in positions of influence (principals, C-level organizational leaders, key board members) and engaging in different activities (in college fairs, arts programs, ethnic studies classes) – their perception of what is possible for them begins to change.
Camino Nuevo students are getting a lot more, in many ways, than I or my peers did back in the day, when high school completion was the exception, not the norm, for kids like me. Is it enough? In some ways it is; more personalized attention, more wrap-around services, more enrichment opportunities, more access to higher education. However, our kids still need more because the system is so broken and set up against their success. Our students need more than a solid educational foundation to make them competitive and to help them navigate the system. Higher education needs to rethink how it supports first-generation college student to completion. We have a solid track record of getting our kids to pursue higher education options and many of them are encountering significant barriers that most often are not academically related. What we are doing at CNCA is great and it is a lot “more,” but I don’t believe that it is enough because of the barriers our kids continue to face every day due to systemic injustice.
Ana’s One Good Question: As a nation, we’re struggling with low college completion rates. We’re seeing a slight increase in graduation rates for Latinos, but a lot of our kids start college and don’t finish. Education leaders and opinion influencers are rethinking the goals of K-12. I’m really concerned that more folks are thinking about creating alternate pathways for Latinos that don’t include a college education. That’s constantly on my mind. I know that my students, my kids will need a college degree to be competitive and to be on the path to leadership and influential positions. I am committed to educating all our kids to be leaders in their communities and in their fields. When we start creating watered-down pathways to a job, we’re not setting our students up to be leaders. What does that say about what we’re really trying to do? I’m personally committed to figuring out how we move ‘average students’ to attain higher levels of success beyond being at top of class. Jumping to alternative pathways is a quick solution. But let’s think about the consequences and examine what we as educators and what our institutions are not getting right. Let’s not blame the kids just yet. Let’s turn the mirror on ourselves.
About Ana: Ana Ponce is the Chief Executive Officer of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy (CNCA), a network of high performing charter schools serving more than 3,500 Pre-K through 12th grade students in the greater MacArthur Park neighborhood near Downtown Los Angeles. CNCA schools are recognized as models for serving predominantly Latino English Language Learners and have won various awards and distinctions including the Title 1 Academic Achievement Award, the California Association of Bilingual Education Seal of Excellence, the California Distinguished Schools award, and the Effective Practice Incentive Community (EPIC) award. Born in Mexico, Ana is committed to providing high quality educational options for immigrant families in the neighborhood where she grew up.
An alumnus of Teach for America, she spent three years in the classroom before becoming one of the founding teachers and administrators at The Accelerated School, the first independent charter school in South Los Angeles. Under her instructional leadership, The Accelerated School was named “Elementary School of the Year” by Time magazine in 2001. Ms. Ponce earned her undergraduate degree from Middlebury College and a master’s degree in Bilingual-Bicultural Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She earned her administrative Tier 1 credential and second master’s degree from UCLA through the Principal’s Leadership Institute (PLI) and earned a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Loyola Marymount University. A veteran of the charter school movement in California, she serves on the Board of the California Charter Schools Association.