Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Latina Bloggers Policy Briefing: Department of Education

l to r: Alejandra Cejas, Lisa Pino, Marissa Duswalt
This is the first article in a series relaying information obtained during a White House briefing on issues relating to Latinos in the U.S.

On Monday, I had the most fantastic opportunity to visit the White House for a special policy briefing thanks to our national LATISM organization. For two hours, dozens of Latina bloggers and I had the opportunity to listen and ask questions to some of the highest ranking Latina officials in the government.

Today, I want to focus on some of the resources and programs that the Department of Education is working on as described by Ms. Alejandra Cejas, Chief of Staff, Office of the Under Secretary, in the Department of Education.

Ms. Cejas began by saying that one of the goals of the administration is to make college affordable for families and students. Currently, many graduates are struggling with the amount of debt they incur to attend quality colleges. As a result, the Dept of Ed is looking into ways to make resources and information for (Latino) students more easily accessible. She said that they are trying to increase federal aid to these students to make repaying their loans easier, and to help them "compete and complete" a degree in higher education.

One of the initiatives that Ms. Cejas mentioned is the Educational Excellence for Hispanics initiative. I did a little research myself on the web and learned that the initiative was actually established in 1990 under the Bush Administration. The goal is to provide quality education while "increasing opportunities for Hispanic American participation in federal education programs."  In 2011, the Obama Administration appointed José Rico as executive director. You can read a fact sheet with more information here.

As part of the administration's program to increase access to federal aid to Latino and other under-served students, the Dept of Ed has created a Forecasting Funding tool on their website that provides a list of the grants that are available, a time frame for students/families, and the name of a staff member with a contact number. It is pretty simple and straight-forward. The site currently has funding listed for the 2012 fiscal year.

The White House is also working on creating a College Scorecard to help students and families compare colleges so that they can make informed decisions when it comes to choosing a college in terms of quality and affordability. The card will be be filled out by students with regards to topics like financial aid availability, graduation success rated, etc. The picture above is a sample scorecard for a four-year college. If you'd like to see more, you can download a PDF at their site, AND I would encourage all of you to evaluate the scorecard by letting them know what you think should be included or how you would change it by filling out their feedback form.

In addition, the administration has committed 2 billion dollars to the Office of Vocational and Adult Education to improve literacy among adults and attract adult learners to retrain them, strengthen their skills, or teach them a new set of skills so that they can begin a new career in a different, higher-paying field. She also said that the Dept of Ed is still fighting for Pell Grants, trying to make the dreams of all students a reality. However, on Sunday, various articles like this one in the Mercury News announced that Congress decided to reduce or eliminate Pell Grants for hundreds of thousands of the poorest college students (guess who makes up up the majority of them? Latinos.) The Pell Grants will now only be available for six year (instead of nine), and students without high school degrees will no longer eligible for the grant after July 1st unless they are already enrolled in college before that time. (However, according to the article, a 2008 federal study showed that students without high school diplomas who complete six college units are just as successful as their high school graduate counterparts.) These students can, however, continue to apply for state funding.

Ms. Cejas said that the administration was taking a "cradle to career" approach and trying to implement reforms across the entire education system through regulations. The way the system work is that the federal government provides funding and guidance policies (a suggestion of "best" practices). States and school districts are responsible for choosing curriculum, teaching strategies, class size, and implementing the specific teaching models.

Many of the Latina bloggers attending the briefing were provided with the opportunity to get up and ask questions. In terms of education, three bloggers in particular tackled the issue of Special Needs students. Lisa Quiñones-Fontanez from Autism Wonderland, Eliana Tardío Hurtado from Emir y Ayelén, and Laurita Tellado Calderón from Holdin' Out for Hero, all shared some of the difficulties they have encountered within the school districts and in society. Ms. Cejas responded by saying that the Department of Education is working very hard towards inclusion and emphasized that this issue is our modern day "Civil Rights Movement."

Roxana Soto from Spanglish Baby asked about the chances of dual-language schools becoming more prevalent for families wanting to raise bilingual children. Ms. Cejas said that the administration was definitely working on improving and even expanding school programs for Spanish-speaking children (ESL learners). So I think Roxana was bit frustrated, and I agree that learning or maintaining a second language should be a top priority the norm for early education programs nationwide. Personally, I think the government should offer incentives for dual language immersion, as well as foreign language and after-school programs that promote bilingualism.

Silvia Martinez from Mama Latina Tips shared her concerns about the increasing class sizes, her disapproval of intensive testing, and her opposition to losing extracurricular subjects/activities such as art and sports. Ms. Cejas replied that class sizes and curriculum (such as art, music, etc) are regulated at a state level, and sometimes even school districts made those decisions.

Ms. Cejas also stressed that the Dept of Education is working with the Departments of Nutrition and Physical Health with regards to how these issues all affect each other. I'll be sharing more about this the next two days!

If you'd like to join in or follow the conversation, follow the White House on Twitter at @WHLive or in Spanish @LaCasablanca.

Disclosure: This information was obtained during a special White House policy briefing for Latina bloggers organized by LATISM. I was awarded a full scholarship to attend the retreat of which the briefing was one aspect, and appreciate the sponsors that made it possible.


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