Op-Ed: For Latinos, ‘parent’s rights’ should be about support and respect

Photo: Getty Images/ Carbonero Stock

By Elizabeth Herrera

May 21, 2024

All I wanted to do growing up in rural North Carolina was leave.

It was hard for me to see what the future could hold in North Carolina for someone like me, one of the few Latino students in Honor and AP classes at my high school in Wilson. As a daughter of immigrants who left their home country to seek better opportunities for their family, I held high expectations of myself to make sure I validated my parent’s sacrifice. That meant serving as a translator to navigate life here for myself and my family and on all of the issues that came up at school.

I did all this at the age of 10.

As a translator and navigator of life at home and in society, and with nine siblings, demands at school and home left little time for me to just be me.

After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, a place I had barely dreamed was attainable, I was surprised to find myself drawn back home to Wilson. But it’s my upbringing here and my understanding of what the Latino community faces that inspired me to open Casa Azul de Wilson, the nonprofit I founded in my hometown with my sister to help Latinos navigate opportunities and struggles in the school system.

As I see the debate throughout North Carolina around “parent’s rights,” I see many of our politicians missing the point. They have cast the debate as though school administrators are going out of their way to harm students and parents need to make all the decisions.

That isn’t the reality. From what I see working with students and parents, Latino parents in particular need to be supported. And our school administrators need to get the training and resources—through translation and understanding differences in culture, for example—to help them navigate the school system.

No parent should be forced to make decisions about their child’s education without the help of professionals.

I see those struggles and am pushing for better outcomes, helping both students and parents navigate life so they can seize the opportunities this state can offer them.

There is a lot of fear from the Latino community, which is why many don’t take advantage of opportunities presented to them. I’ve encountered students from eastern North Carolina who qualify for financial aid but either avoid applying out of fear of errors; or sometimes parents complete it yet don’t follow through with the verification process because they don’t know how.

I saw it in a high school student, a U.S. citizen, who was paying high out-of-state tuition because he did not know he could appeal his (incorrectly-determined) residency status because of fear of jeopardizing his parents.

I saw it in the parents who, in negotiating with school staff over an Individualized Education Program (IEP), weren’t able to get the accommodations their student needed because of what was lost in translation. I saw a young Latina penalized for missing school, even though the absences should have been excused because they required regular medical treatment in Chapel Hill.

Constantly hitting these walls can be discouraging, and it’s unfair that the system puts the burden on students to overcome them.

At Casa Azul, we believe in lifting that burden off our students. For that reason, our appointments are done bilingually and simultaneously.

The same opportunity should happen in our schools. Juniors and seniors should have the opportunity to listen and learn without the anxiety and pressure of translating and interpreting on the spot to their parents. Their parents should have access to the information in their language and be a full participant in the conversation.

There’s a big myth about Latino parents held by many that they don’t want to be involved in their children’s education. The reality is much more complex. They face many barriers to getting to the table with those in charge of their children’s education, including working several jobs, lacking childcare or transportation, or navigating healthcare challenges.

And then when they get to the table, they are seeking to advocate for their child in a language they don’t understand.

Bringing both sides together will be difficult. But if we invest in both, I know that my work as an advocate for Latino students will become easier. More Latino students will be aware of how to navigate the prospect of college and other opportunities as well as handle challenges at school. And, when school administrators have the training and resources, they can help parents be an equal participant in navigating those difficult decisions.

Author

  • Elizabeth Herrera

    Elizabeth Herrera, co-founder and Director of Community Advancement at Casa Azul de Wilson, is a first-generation Mexican-American dedicated to fostering education equity and cultural inclusion in rural North Carolina.

CATEGORIES: EDUCATION

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