Empowering the Hispanic Community with School Choice: an exclusive interview with Rebeca Nieves Huffman

Published April 1, 2004

Established as a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, the United States of America has been a magnet for immigrants seeking to better their lives and provide their children with their own shot at the American Dream. But many of today’s immigrants–particularly Latinos–are finding the urban public schools their children attend leave them woefully unprepared for life and work in a competitive economy.

Fortunately for Rebeca Nieves Huffman, her Puerto Rican parents saw the public school problem early enough to take action and were willing to make the financial sacrifice necessary to send three children to private school. Although Huffman’s brother was initially sent to the local public school on Chicago’s Northwest side, he was quickly placed in a private school after some of his classmates held him up at gunpoint.

Huffman was the only one in her community to go to private school. When she graduated from high school, only a handful of her peers from the neighborhood graduated from public school. Many of the others were in jail, pregnant, or jobless, living at home with their parents. Huffman went on to earn a degree in marketing and public relations from Columbia College.

“I was the first one in my family to graduate from college and I was the only one in my neighborhood to graduate from college,” she said.

For a number of years, Huffman served as Associate Director of Recruitment and Selection for the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). She also served as Project Leader at City Year, an AmeriCorps program to support young adults who commit to full-time community service. In 2002, through her association with KIPP, she became a board member of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (CREO). She was named president of the organization last year, when CREO formally announced its mission at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Huffman recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become involved in school reform?

Huffman: When I graduated from college I decided to be a teacher because I loved working with children and I wanted to make an impact on inner city education. I taught transitional third-graders who were repeating that grade for the first or second time in a public school on the West side of Chicago. I saw how frustrated everybody was with the system of public education and how it was administered. Teachers came into their jobs at first idealistic and at the end just burnt out and frustrated, and taking that out on the children.

There was a teacher in our school who treated her students badly and had a track record of academic failure in her classroom. I would go to the principal about her and the principal would pull out a very long, thick file and say, “This is what I’ve been having to deal with in order to either get her transferred or to fire her. I’m dealing with the union.” My principal also was frustrated by the bureaucracy and complained about having to ask permission from the district to move money around in her budget.

That was not what I envisioned for my career. I wanted to impact public education, but I could see nothing could be done at the micro level. Since I had a degree in marketing and public relations, I decided to try out that area and got a job with a Latino advertising agency. I really enjoyed it, I learned a lot, I gained a lot of experience, but I missed making an impact on education.

Then I was introduced to KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, and went to work there. They have 32 schools nationwide, with a fellowship program–a certification process, if you will–to train potential KIPP school leaders. My role was recruiting educators to start their own KIPP schools. I loved working there because KIPP didn’t make excuses for why their students couldn’t learn at high levels. The KIPP students were excelling academically and socially, and they were getting accepted in top-notch high schools throughout the country. I’m really proud to have worked with them.

During my time at KIPP, one of my colleagues–a founding board member of BAEO, the Black Alliance for Educational Options–introduced me to Robert Aguirre, the chairman of the board of Hispanic CREO. Subsequently, I became a board member of Hispanic CREO and then transitioned over to the presidency.

Clowes: What is Hispanic CREO and what is its aim?

Huffman: Hispanic CREO is an acronym for our full name, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, but creo in Spanish means “I believe.” We are a national nonprofit organization, based in Washington, DC. We’re dedicated to improving the educational outcomes of Latino children by empowering their parents with educational choice, with school choice.

We do two things to achieve that: At the national level we inform the public about the crisis that exists in Latino education; and at the grassroots level we educate and empower Latino parents about what their options are. If they don’t have many options, we encourage them to become a voice in the community to demand choice.

CREO was formed in the fall of 2000 when a group of about 15 concerned Latino professionals from across the country gathered in Atlanta, Georgia to talk about the findings of the 2000 Census with regard to Latino education. The statistics were really, really grim. Only 52 percent of the nation’s Latinos graduate from high school and only 5.2 percent receive a Bachelor’s Degree. When you consider that 93 percent of Latinos participate in the system of public education in this country, it just points out how the system has failed us. There are some wonderful public schools out there but they’re usually not in the barrio.

Even so, at the top of the list of educational options that we support are traditional public schools. If tomorrow school choice were to be made available nationwide the way it is, for instance, in Milwaukee, it would mean nothing if there weren’t also strong public schools available to receive children. We believe that providing educational choice for parents will help improve the system of public schools.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education awarded CREO a grant of $500,000 to educate Latino parents in five major cities about the school choice provision and the supplemental services provision of No Child Left Behind. Three of the cities are in Texas–San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas–plus Camden, New Jersey, and Miami, Florida.

We have been shocked to find there’s no awareness of these options among Latino parents. Most have not even heard the term, “No Child Left Behind.” What we’re finding is that the school districts are not informing parents about their options. In Camden, parents with children in a school on the “Needs Improvement” or “Persistently Dangerous” list are being denied the option of transferring to another school. We’ve seen situations where principals of these schools have sent letters home to parents saying, “There is no transfer option available to you.” Parents’ rights are being violated, point blank. There’s no pretty way to say it. The door of opportunity is being shut in children’s faces.

When we inform Latino parents about the school choice and tutoring options of No Child Left Behind, the response has been unbelievable. In Dallas, for instance, we’re averaging 70 parents a week at our meetings. Just a few weeks ago we were on Despierta America–which is the equivalent of Good Morning America–and we had to assign a 1-800 helpline for the response we received. We went on the show to tell parents about how they can transfer their child and how they can get free tutoring. Parents were calling and literally crying, saying, “I want to transfer my child to a better public school. Please give me more information.”

The success of No Child Left Behind depends on how well the school districts cooperate. That is what will determine the success of its implementation. We are trying to make parents aware of what is available to them but we need the cooperation of the districts. We’re seeing some positive headway, for instance, in Dallas, where the superintendent is allowing us to go into the “Needs Improvement” schools.

We’re telling the school districts, “We’re not here to compete. We’re here to increase your Latino parent involvement.” In fact, a lot of school districts call us to ask how they can increase Latino parent involvement. My first question is always, “Are you sending information home in Spanish?” Most of the time, the answer is “No.”

Clowes: What prompted you to back parental choice as a means of improving public schools?

Huffman: It’s an immediate solution. With school choice, parents don’t have to wait for the public schools to get better or for the public schools to get more money. The opponents of choice say, “Our schools are under-resourced. We’ve got to put more money into public schools.” That tells a desperate parent they have to wait. Yet I have seen under-resourced private and charter schools do more with the same children the public schools get. That’s no excuse. We can’t wait for the public schools to get better. There’s a crisis at hand. Our parents need an immediate way to get their children out of schools that are not serving them. This is their life, this is their future that’s at risk.

If the Latino community continues to grow the way it did from 1990 to 2000, by the year 2010 we will be the largest ethnic group in the country. There are serious social ramifications of having a group of that size if it is not educationally prepared to participate in a positive way within the society. We’re trying to infuse our message with a sense of urgency because the Latino educational crisis needs to be addressed immediately.

Clowes: One of the concerns you’ve voiced is the low expectations that public schools have for Hispanic children.

Huffman: Low expectations is what’s stopping our public schools from doing well. From my own experience as an educator and with KIPP, I believe low expectations is a cancer that has spread across our education system. There are educators out there who believe Latino children can’t learn at the same level as their white counterparts. They’re wrong.

There are teachers that are trying to make a difference in their classrooms in the public schools but they are in a minority. I saw it all the time when I was recruiting educators for the KIPP School Leadership Program. They were very frustrated with seeing their students do well in their class but then flop when they went into a different class in the same school.

I believe there are two sleeping giants in the school choice movement: Parents and teachers. There are a lot of great teachers whose hearts are in the right place, and they’re trying their hardest, but they keep on bumping their heads against the bureaucracy of the public education system. Choice opponents say we’re anti-public schools, that we just want to privatize the system, but that’s not the case. There are plenty of great teachers in the system, but they can’t be effective as long as they’re in a school culture of low expectations.

Jay Matthews from the Washington Post recently did an article about No Child Left Behind, and he requested some additional information from parents, including a group of parents from our Dallas chapter. One of our parents wrote, “Even though the school district is telling me that my daughter is doing well, I know she is not doing well. She was tested at an academy school, and they told me her reading and math were below grade level. But the public school tells me she’s doing fine.” There is no reason why a child should be told they’re doing fine when in fact they’re not. That’s just one of the many examples of the low expectations that I have observed in the system of public education.

Clowes: What would be your practical advice for parents who are worried that their children aren’t getting a good education at their assigned school?

Huffman: There are some cultural issues in the Latino community that we have to face when we’re doing our grassroots projects. One is that Latino parents, especially immigrant parents from other countries, generally don’t want–or dare–to question the system. They say, “I don’t have a Bachelor’s Degree. The teachers and principal must know what they’re doing.” There’s also this fear that if they question the system, which represents the government, they might get deported. They’ve worked so hard to come to this country and they don’t want to lose it.

We tell them, “You’re protected by the law and your child is protected by the law. You can go to the school and ask questions. You can talk to the teacher and ask questions.” If they’re trying to get something done at their public school, we encourage them to reach out to a local, community-based organization like Hispanic CREO. If they find there are no options available for their child, we encourage them to become an advocate for their child. They then become a part of the process of influencing policy-makers. It has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans, it simply has to do with the educational success of their child.

What we find is that when parents first come in, they don’t want to rock the boat. But when they have been informed about how the system works and how they can become a voice, they turn into what we call “Ninja Moms.” They’re ferocious. They go to the state capital and they ask legislators, “Where do you send your child to school?” That’s why I say parents are really sleeping giants.

Nobody wants what’s best for their child more than a parent, and once parents are activated on the issue, they become unstoppable. That’s what we’re finding, for instance, in San Antonio, where there is a large network of about 3,000 parents called Los Colmadres. Directly translated, Los Colmadres means “The Godmothers.” They have very little money in their budget for parent activities but they are actively engaged in improving the schools in their community. That’s a really powerful thing to see and experience.

Clowes: How does Hispanic CREO regard bilingual education?

Huffman: As an organization, we don’t have a stand on bilingual education because our focus is laser-like on school choice options. But in our grassroots projects we inform Latino parents about what bilingual education is and what other programs such as dual-language programs are.

For the most part, we find parents say, “I don’t want my child being taught in Spanish all day. I want them immersed in the English language.” Many informed parents choose programs other than bilingual education. However, Hispanic CREO as an organization doesn’t take a stand on that. We inform parents about the different programs and we let them choose. It’s all about informing and empowering parents so they can choose what’s best for their child.