As it did with the health care system and economy, COVID-19 exacerbated the deep disparities in education by race and ethnicity that existed across the country’s public school system underscoring the importance of prioritizing equitable access to learning.
In Chicago, school districts were overwhelmed and unequipped with the chaos of mass school closures and shifting to remote learning. Hispanic-Latino students who make up the largest student body in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were hardest hit by the disruption.
For Hispanic-Latino students and other disenfranchised communities, educators who share their lived experiences could have made a big impact on CPS policy changes that chastised low-income students lacking basic technology, access to live instruction, and safe quiet spaces to learn.
Now, with the appointment of José Torres as the interim CPS chief replacing CEO Janice Jackson, there’s an opportunity to make representation in leadership reflect the diversity in classrooms.
“CPS is primarily made up of Latino students,” Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the Latino Caucus and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s former City Council floor leader said. “So why can’t we have someone in charge that reflects the population that it represents?”
The City Council Latino Caucus agrees with Villegas. “With Dr. Torres’s invaluable experience, the Latino Caucus believes he will lead CPS correctly through this critical transition. We urge you to make this acting appointment permanent or choose another Latino candidate to lead the next generation of CPS”, the caucus wrote in a letter to Lightfoot.
The mayor said that Torres wouldn’t be a candidate for the permanent position citing he had retired but does this sound like someone who is ready to call it quits? “First, to work closely with our stakeholders, our parents, and educators our partners in ensuring that we have in-person learning five days a week come the fall,” said Torres at the press conference for his appointment. “Race, zip code, social-economic status should not really predict the future but in our society it has.
But it should not. I think education is key. It’s the key to a great city and a great city creates investments in education.”
Torres is a champion of diversity and inclusion. In an op-ed Torres wrote in 2019 he shared an encounter with a young student.
“Not long after becoming the first Latino superintendent in Illinois’ second-largest school district, Elgin School District, with a student population of 40,000 students, I visited all of our 56 schools”, he wrote. “When I visited schools, I introduced myself in classrooms, stating I was the “Superintendent,” which meant I was the “boss of the principals.” In Spanish, I said, I was the “Mero Mero” (the big guy in charge). As I visited a third-grade classroom at Channing Elementary School, Lissette (not her real name), a nine-year-old Latina girl with big brown eyes and black curly hair said to me, “I want to be a super person like you when I grow up. I’ve never met anyone like you.” The power of diversity is immediate and personal, especially when seen at the highest levels of organizations.”
Torres, a native of Puerto Rico began his career as a middle school teacher. He has worked in Chicago schools as a regional superintendent, previously served as Superintendent of Elgin District U-46, and most recently was President of the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora.
“Diverse leadership teams also improve our school systems and educational results”, wrote Torres. When I led the Elgin School District of 40,000 students, we increased the performance of all students and of diverse populations, their access to advance placement courses, and their academic growth. Our diversity as educational leaders were critical to this success. Within three years, my leadership team became majority-minority and I had appointed 11 minority principals out of 22 as compared to three minority principals appointed in previous years. These actions resulted in increased student growth and increased parent engagement, particularly since many of the newly-appointed leaders were bilingual.“
Board of Education President Miguel del Valle made it a point to highlight Torres’s work with Latino students at his introduction as interim leader of CPS.
“One thing that I made sure I had an opportunity to see was his dual-language programs”, recalled del Valle of touring Elgin school district. “And I was so impressed when I observed teachers and students in those dual-language classes,” he said.
Initiatives to increase access and opportunity for students of color often fall short because they exclude key voices from the conversation. That was the case when CPS announced plans to reinstate in-person instruction earlier this year. “The service was horrible”, said Johnny Alvarado about issues his daughters had with technology and remote learning. “Each time we tried to get in Google classrooms, it got cut off. We couldn’t log in on time”, he said in Spanish at an online discussion hosted by Chicago Unheard during the tug-of-war over reopening schools. In the meeting, many Hispanic-Latino parents said they felt their voices were being ignored by CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union (CPU).
Reliable internet access was compounded by other barriers including CPS not understanding the Spanish language dominant immigrant parents’ struggles to assist their children with an English language education. Some parents who argued for the return to in-classroom learning also expressed concerns about how isolation was having a toll on their children’s mental health.
José Torres is the second Latino to lead the district since the CEO position was created nearly 30 years ago — Jesse Ruiz also served on an interim basis in 2015. That’s part of the problem says Ray Salazar, CPS teacher and education blogger at the White Rhino. “So if we want a competent Latino, Latina, Latinx leader in the CEO position, we need to make sure our district creates a multi-faceted pipeline for potential leaders”, says Salazar. “As it stands, the only way to move into most senior leadership positions is to be a principal. Our district has to ask itself, ‘Does that linear pathway contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion?'”
If the tired excuse of “I can’t find them” is used in not hiring a qualified Hispanic-Latino candidate for CEO of Chicago Public Schools, it is in part because of a continued failure to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive pipeline
Mayor Lightfoot has been criticized for the lack of Hispanics-Latinos in her cabinet. Here’s an opportunity to do better.
Hugo Balta is owner of Latino News Network. He also is a former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.