Bridging the communication gap

Built-up grievances force a meeting between Latino parents and the school superintendent

Washoe County School Superintendent James Hager, center, talks with translator Nico de la Puentes and Tom Stoneburner of the Alliance for Workers Rights

Washoe County School Superintendent James Hager, center, talks with translator Nico de la Puentes and Tom Stoneburner of the Alliance for Workers Rights

Photo By Dennis Myers

Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of sovereignty, and on May 5 a group of frustrated Hispanic parents finally got the face-to-face meeting they wanted with Washoe County School District Superintendent James Hager.

Ayudando a Superarse ("Working to Overcome") is a grass-roots organization of Latino parents who met with school district officials at Pine Middle School, demanding answers and equality for their middle- and high-school children. About 75 people attended the meeting, galvanized by the group that was formed after months of attempting to force WCSD to agree to meet and address their concerns.

A steady stream of Latino students, parents and activists stood up to ask Hager why their children were being suspended, why the quality of their education was second-rate, and why they were perpetually confronted with racism from peers, instructors and school administrators.

Many were offended by the presence of three officers from the Reno Police Department’s Gang Unit, there because of a well-intended invitation from a committee member. One parent recalled a previous meeting they’d requested with WCSD administration to discuss their children’s education and struggles, only to be confronted with a lecture about gang involvement.

Steadily taking notes and consulting with his support staff, Superintendent Hager sat composed for more than two hours, as students and parents spoke. After each person spoke, his or her comments were translated from English to Spanish and vice versa, extending the two-hour meeting into three.

At the core of both the problems and the solutions, virtually everyone agreed, is communication. The language barrier commands a great deal of the district’s resources, and Spanish-speaking students who are unprepared for the demands of an English-based curriculum sometimes slip through the cracks, creating higher truancy and drop-out rates and weakening the Hispanic community.

In the buffer zone is Tom Stoneburner, director of the Alliance for Workers’ Rights, whom the parents contacted to address the gaps in family-school communication. The alliance was founded in 1998 to aid the families of Latino workers killed in the explosion of a TNT plant near Lockwood.

Before the start of the Pine Middle School meeting, Stoneburner chatted with parents and educators. He said, “The alliance … immediately recognized that this was an issue we couldn’t ignore. If students aren’t getting a quality education—and particularly, a certain class of students—then what we’re doing is establishing and perpetuating an underclass of workers in our community who have no real expectation of ever being successful in the workplace, or even in society.”

He said frustration with Galena High administrators forced parents to seek out Hager, but the meeting likely wouldn’t end disputes.

“This is going to be a long struggle, and it’s not always going to be easy, but what we’re doing here tonight is an unprecedented first step,” he said. “The parents understand, more than anybody else, the value of an education and what that means in terms of realizing the hopes and dreams of their children.”

When the meeting began, the students were given the first opportunity to speak. Neil Road resident and Galena sophomore Jonathan Gama said he and a friend once were speaking Spanish and a teacher said, “You can’t speak Spanish here. This is America. Speak English. Can’t you understand English?”

Gama told the crowd he goes to school to learn, and Latino students rely on each other to interpret teachers.

“Everybody’s human,” said Gama, 16. “We’re friends. We all have a heart. I don’t see why there are differences. We’re all the same. We have feelings. I’m proud that I’m Latino. I’m pretty sad because I don’t see help from the teachers when I don’t understand.”

Gama also said he and his minority peers are frequently and unfairly confronted and accused of fighting.

Another student, Jessica Martinez, who has been suspended in the past, said she doesn’t want those mistakes to affect the credits she’s earned. Martinez implied that many of the conflicts occurring between Latino and non-Latino students are sparked by racial differences and remarks.

“A white boy was calling me names. I asked why he was cursing me out. I’m a Mexican, and he’s a white boy, and [he] can say whatever he wants. It got me suspended for 10 days. We come here to learn.”

Ayudando a Superarse proposed having Spanish-speaking interpreters, liaisons and counselors at every school.

“We understand that there’s only so much you can do with the stroke of a pen, but there are some things that you can do,” Stoneburner said, looking at Hager. “You can make sure that at every high-school office there is somebody who’s not only able to communicate with Spanish-speaking parents and students, but who’s also dedicated to doing that. Not somebody brought out of the kitchen, not somebody that the student brings forth to translate for them.”

Stoneburner also demanded that the district commit to meeting with the parent group again to assess future progress and that it “dedicate funds” to support better communication.

As the meeting began to run long, Hager took the microphone.

“I would like to think that what’s been spoken today is more the exception than the norm,” he said, adding that he appreciated the solutions proposed by the committee and asking for greater parental involvement and political activism. “It’s important that you understand that education doesn’t stop when students have left school. I would propose … that if there are individuals, teachers or groups that would like to meet on Saturdays, we can [have a] dialogue about how to bring issues to the table and work toward solutions.”

Hager attributed some of the suspensions to the language barrier and accepted educator/parent Emma Sepulveda’s offer to seek access to the resources available within the Spanish-speaking student population she works with at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“One of the solutions I believe we can take a look at is to have a third party who can be a parent advocate, who can speak Spanish,” Hager said. “I need to rely on some other people to help. We have Nevada Hispanic Services and Peter Padilla we can call on, but we need to bring other community people in.”

Hager also promised to share the parents’ concerns with principals at other schools.

In the mingling that followed the meeting, there were lots of handshakes, plenty of smiles and a feeling of accomplishment on the part of Ayudando a Superarse, its members satisfied that they’d achieved their goal of getting Hager to hear them out. Gama thanked Hager and new Galena Principal Rick Borba. Communication, he suggested, is an important element to his education—and to the community.

“It’s hard, but it’s not impossible."