Years of intense work by many in the community to close the educational opportunity gaps for Asian and Pacific Islander (API) students give me hope.
It’s a belief in the kind of “hope” that President Obama described so well—it’s that “thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.”
For too long, the education system and policymakers did not recognize the needs of API students. However, community-led efforts helped change the conversation about who is impacted by the opportunity gaps.
In 2008, University of Washington professors Shirley Hune and David Takeuchi conducted two groundbreaking studies that showed academic challenges among Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students, many of whom are recent immigrants and refugees, English language learners, and low-income students.
These difficulties were hidden by the common practice of lumping all API students in one category. These gaps are largely due to inequities in our education system.
Recent results from the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills, an assessment of incoming kindergarteners, show the opportunity gaps are visible in the first few weeks of kindergarten. Children from low-income families face disadvantages due to the lack of affordable, quality early learning experiences.
A student with limited English proficiency is often unable to receive language assistance programs and services in his or her native language, and educators are not required to receive specialized training to teach language acquisition.
Many of our students do not see themselves in our education system. Despite being eight percent of the student population, APIs make up only three percent of Washington’s teachers. The absence of in-depth information about our histories and cultures in textbooks and curriculums affects our students’ sense of belonging in school.
Shrinking budgets have led to reductions in staff and resources such as guidance counselors and instructional aides that support the social and emotional well-being and academic success of API students. Too many parents who have limited English proficiency are unable to make informed decisions about their child’s academic future due to the lack of adult interpreters in meetings with teachers and school staff.
These are daunting challenges. However, what gives me hope are the recent efforts underway to involve community and organizations to collectively remove barriers for our children.
In 2011, the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs and community partners launched a statewide initiative to involve the voices of students and families in developing strategies to close the opportunity gaps. The initiative culminated with two education summits last fall, one for Pacific Islanders at South Seattle Community College and one for Southeast Asians/Asians at Highline Community College.
The initiative spurred the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition, which organizes the annual Asian Pacific American Legislative Day, to make closing the opportunity gaps one of its top priorities in its 2013 legislative agenda.
Local groups like the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition and the Road Map Project, which has a free parent forum at Foster High School on April 20th, are more examples.
These efforts also include the work of a state education task force that is gathering input among many groups who have a stake in the future of API students. Together, we are building a comprehensive, targeted approach to closing the opportunity gaps. Here are some of the strategies:
- Close gaps before they start: Invest in quality preschool or early learning opportunities that will prepare low-income three and four year olds for success in school.
- Value the role of families and community: Break down “silos” between schools and community-based organizations that serve children.
- Support the diverse needs of students: Enhance the cultural competency of educators and the cultural relevance of curriculum and instruction. Address school discipline policies that disproportionately impact students of color.
- Better data leads to better instruction: Gather data by sub-ethnic groups to allow schools and policymakers to develop effective strategies to close gaps.
Whether we achieve the education system our children deserve depends on us.
We must educate and hold decision-makers accountable at the state, school district, and school building level so policies are shaped with the diverse needs of students in mind.
Our students need our voice to fight for them. Contact your legislator, attend a school board meeting or rally your community.
Our involvement will ensure our students succeed in school and achieve the hopes and dreams we see in them.
For more information, visit: http://www.capaa.wa.gov/