by Dr. Gladys I. Cruz
District Superintendent

This week, we wind down National Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated annually from September 15 to October 15, to recognize the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans. A few weeks ago, more than 1,000 people packed the streets in Hudson for the first-ever Latinx Parade and Festival in celebration of this annual observance, which Congress started as a week in 1968 and President Reagan expanded to a month in 1988. Thank you to the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement and the Hudson Tourism Board for organizing this inaugural event.

These celebrations are evidence of our region’s and country’s growing diversity. Nationally, the U.S. Hispanic population reached 62.5 million last year, accounting for nearly one in five of all Americans, making it the nation’s second largest ethnic or racial group, behind White Americans.

About 98 percent of Americans live in a county with an increasing number of Hispanics, according to the New York Times. This includes Columbia and Greene counties. Locally, the number of Hispanics increased by 44 percent and 28.5 percent, respectively, over the past decade – and at a time when the overall population declined by more than 2 percent. There are now nearly an equal number of Hispanics living in Columbia (2,975) and Greene (2,922) counties, according to the 2020 Census. As a point of comparison, the national Hispanic population grew by 23 percent during this same period, with newborns driving much of this growth.

This increase is also evident in our schools. In fact, the percentage of Hispanic students in our member school districts in Columbia and Greene counties increased nearly 160 percent over a 20-year period, from 637 during the 2000-01 school year to 1,078 during the 2020-21 school year (according to State Education Department data).

While the share of Hispanics (and other ethnic groups) has increased, the share of Hispanic teachers has not kept pace with the growth in diversity. As our student population grows more diverse, it is important for public education to recruit and retain teachers and administrators that look like the students we teach.

Our students should see themselves in those who teach and lead them in school. After all, teachers are more than content providers or facilitators, they are also role models, mentors and advocates who can ignite a passion for lifelong learning and challenge students to do more than they ever imagined. Last month, I wrote about how two teachers forever changed my life thanks to their empathy and care. This no doubt influenced my desire to become a teacher and administrator.

However, our industry and profession need more to inspire individuals to become teachers. For the first time, a national poll found that most respondents did not want their children to pursue a career in education. The 50th annual PDK International Poll on public attitudes towards education found that 54 percent did not want their children to become teachers. In the same poll, Hispanic parents were more supportive, with two-thirds of respondents wanting their kids to be teachers.

Hispanics are also increasingly younger than the non-Hispanic population, with a median age of 29.8 compared to 38.5 for the entire population (as of 2020). This is due, in part, to a large number of younger children. In fact, Hispanic students accounted for 20 percent or more of kindergarteners in 18 states plus the District of Columbia (up from just eight states in 2000), according to the Pew Research Center.

As these young Hispanics grow and seek higher education, policymakers will need to keep in mind that many will be first-generation college students and address the challenges they will face. Currently, Hispanics are more likely to enroll in institutions awarding associate degrees. Groups like Excelencia in Education are working to help close the equity gap in college completion. I am pleased that this group recently recognized one of our statewide programs for its success in preparing Hispanic students for higher education.

The Angelo Del Toro Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute (PRHYLI), coordinated by Questar III BOCES since 2007, was named one of 10 programs to watch nationally. PRHYLI – which is a partnership among the state education department, legislature, and others – was recognized for its success in supporting hundreds of Hispanic students, including those in Columbia and Greene counties. Since its inception, 75 percent of PRHYLI alumni have entered a four-year college program immediately after graduation.

Last year, the New York State Board of Regents launched an initiative to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools across the New York State. Since its founding, Questar III has worked to expand equity and opportunity in the public education system, regardless of a student’s background or zip code. Today, that important work continues in partnership with our local districts. This includes efforts to:

  • foster a system and culture that includes, supports and values diversity and inclusion
  • encourage greater understanding and acceptance of the viewpoints and perspectives of all stakeholders, including our students and families
  • ensure that all members of our school community have the full opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential,
  • work cooperatively and respectfully with others, and
  • attract, retain, engage, and engage a diverse and open-minded workforce that will make a lasting impact both internally and within our communities.

Author Stephen Covey once wrote, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.” We live in a country where this ideal and promise are evident, but where there is still work to do. We are stronger when multiple perspectives help to address the challenges and opportunities facing our students and districts. I look forward to continuing this work together.

This column was published in the Register Star and The Daily Mail newspapers.

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