L.A. school leader reflects on the values he grew up with and how he lives them with his students every day — not just during Hispanic Heritage Month
It’s Hispanic Heritage Month and the signs and advertisements celebrating the culture are abundant. I feel, as I often do this time of year, mixed emotions. As a Mexican-American educator, I understand the good intentions behind the signs; celebrating diversity and honoring different cultures should be applauded.
But if we really want to celebrate the culture and give Latino students a true sense of belonging in their schools, we should do far more than have a program, assembly or fancy celebration to honor our students’ heritage. Instead, we should look at the foundational role that families play within Latino culture and embrace and honor those values. Values of belonging, collaboration and hard work.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I was often surrounded by my large extended family. Both my parents are from Jalisco, Mexico: my mother is one of 11 siblings and my father is one of six. Many of my aunts, uncles and cousins also moved to Los Angeles. My Dad instilled in me the importance of courage, and the value of hard work as the expression of one’s integrity and honor.
But despite these important family values, as a first-generation student, I lacked the resources or institutional knowledge to easily navigate the U.S. education system — it took me seven years just to complete college. Now that our nieces and nephews are getting ready to go to college, we make sure they have the tools to navigate the complex higher education system. This is part of our family culture: a shared responsibility to pass along what you learn, paving the way for the next generation. Our family also instilled a sense of belonging and security that gave us the courage to take risks — after all, there’s no bigger risk than immigrating to a foreign land.
Imagine if school communities embodied Latino family norms; where responsibility is shared, accountability is collective and a sense of belonging lives. Can you imagine what that might look like? We strive to do this every day at our school. Like many Latino families, we emphasize working in groups and collaborative efforts over a focus on the individual.
“We see you and got you.” Those words hold power. It’s about knowing that your community, your group, has your back. Family has your back. This is something we discuss at our schools because it resonates deeply with our students: to be seen, to know you are unconditionally supported. At Aspire Public Schools’ Los Angeles-area schools, where the majority of our students identify as Latino, we embrace this idea, to make our students feel safe and supported unconditionally, in everything we do.
For example, at Aspire Ollin University Prep where I worked for 12 years, we created an advisory group program at our secondary school. Freshmen are placed into micro-communities of about 30 students with one teacher who stays with the group all four years. Weekly community circles and guided conversations about issues that affect our scholars’ lives help them feel seen and supported. Like a large, extended family, these groups benefit from collaborative learning, shared responsibility and an environment built on trust and belonging.
Programs like this allow us to create a familial identity at Aspire. We focus on students’ social-emotional learning, equity work and culturally relevant pedagogy that helps students feel supported. But most importantly, we leverage each other’s humanity. We support each other in providing a learning space for students and staff. A place where students learn from teachers and each other. A place where teachers learn from their students and their colleagues. Just like we learn from family.
When you think about how family roots children, gives them a sense of confidence and purpose and offers space to be who they really are — how could you not want to embed those values in a school? We want these ideals to resonate deeply with our students. When a community of trust and belonging exists, students have the freedom to take risks and follow their intellectual curiosity. Instilling a school culture with family-inspired values brings out the genius in our students and gives them the space to enjoy their education and discover their own passions. This is how we honor Latino culture — every day.
Joel Ramirez is the son of immigrant parents from Jalisco, Mexico, and has been an educator for more than 15 years as a teacher, school administrator. He’s now Aspire Public School’s senior director of culturally responsive leadership development in Los Angeles.