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How Cardona could uplift immigrant students and English language learners as education secretary

Mark Keierleber | December 29, 2020

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Miguel Cardona with his parents, Sarah and Hector Cardona, during his 2019 swearing-in as Connecticut education commissioner. (Alma Exley Scholarship Program)

When voters selected Joe Biden as the next president, Juan Cisneros offered a lukewarm congratulations.

Cisneros, a 19-year-old computer science student at Benedictine University in Mesa, Arizona, is still fuming about immigration policy under former President Barack Obama, who oversaw a surge in deportations and was famously dubbed the “Deporter in Chief” by leading immigrant-rights groups. An undocumented immigrant who moved to the U.S. from Mexico on his 7th birthday, Cisneros accused the president-elect in November of taking Latinos for granted though his efforts to rally Arizona voter turnout likely helped Biden win that state.

But late on Dec. 22, Biden nominated Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona as the next U.S. education secretary, elevating to the nation’s top schools post a Puerto Rican educator who began his own schooling career unable to speak English. The nomination was met with praise from groups that represent Latinos and English language learners.

Cardona will bring further diversity to Biden’s cabinet, which is also poised to include Xavier Becerra, California’s first Latino attorney general, as secretary of health and human services. Cisneros, who himself began elementary school in Arizona as an English language learner, said that diversity is critical to Biden’s success.

“I think it’s very important that the different groups of people throughout the U.S. are represented” in Biden’s cabinet picks, he said, adding that Cardona could offer a powerful voice for English language learners in schools across the U.S. But he remains skittish. “I’m still waiting for [Biden’s] actual actions whenever he gets into office.”

The son of a policeman, Cardona was born in working-class Meriden, Connecticut, was raised in a housing project there and confronted racist stereotypes as a student, according to a profile in the CT Mirror. After becoming the first in his family to attend college, Cardona launched his career in education but decided not to teach in a bilingual classroom, as he first imagined he would.

“I felt it was important [that] non-Latino students saw a Latino in a position as a teacher,” he told the nonprofit news website. “So I chose to stay in the regular education setting.”

That experience will be invaluable for immigrant students and English learners, said Viridiana Carrizales, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit ImmSchools, which helps schools create safe classrooms for undocumented students and their families, who have been subjects of fierce attacks over the last four years by President Donald Trump.

“It brings tons of hope, especially for our immigrant community and English language learners who have never had a leader who shared their lived experience in a position like Dr. Cardona will have as the secretary of education,” she said. “Our education system in the U.S. has never prioritized the needs” of immigrant kids and English learners, but Cardona’s nomination provides optimism that such a reality could soon change.

Carrizales said she’s hopeful that Cardona could bring immigrant students’ needs to the forefront. Among them, that he will confront communication barriers between families and schools — especially during the pandemic.

In one recent national survey of Latino parents by the group Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, 65 percent said that learning is more difficult for their children during remote instruction because of communication obstacles. Meanwhile, the digital divide has been a particular challenge for students of color, including Latino children. More than a quarter of Latino students lack adequate internet access and devices necessary for learning at home, according to Common Sense Media.

“We have many families who are trying to communicate with the schools and the schools have no one that speaks the language that the parents speak — whether it’s Spanish, whether it’s Vietnamese, whatever language it is — our schools are not prioritizing sharing information with their students’ families” in a language they understand, Carrizales said.

Cardona’s nomination also secured an endorsement from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a coalition of leading immigrant-rights groups, including UnidosUS. In a statement, UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía said that Cardona “worked tirelessly to close achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers,” as Connecticut’s top education official and will offer a stark departure from education policymaking under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“After four years of an education secretary who prioritized privatizing education, rolled back the civil rights of our students, and repeatedly assaulted DACA, we are excited that President-elect Biden has nominated an educator who knows, values, and has experienced the public school system, and who will prioritize investments to meet the needs of diverse teachers, students and families,” Murguía said.

Over the course of his presidency, Trump sought to dismantle the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers work permits and deportation relief to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Trump’s efforts have faced steep hurdles in federal courts and the program remains in place. However, the battle over DACA’s fate goes on in full force. Also on Dec. 22, Texas and eight other states asked a federal judge to rule the program unconstitutional.

The pandemic “exposed long-standing inequities and laid bare the true degree to which schools systems are currently ill-equipped to meet the needs of linguistically and culturally diverse students in the classroom and in outreach to families,” according to the Coalition for English Learner Equity, which noted that educators have received little guidance on how to educate English learners during remote learning and that could come with long-lasting implications. “Moving forward, a sustained and strategic collaboration at all levels of the school system is needed to reimagine the way linguistically and culturally diverse students are served in schools.”

On the campaign trail, Biden promised to fill the education secretary seat with someone with teaching experience — a pledge that Carrizales was thrilled to see fulfilled. But to be successful in his new role, she said that Cardona needs to listen to students and their families.

“Our families know what’s best for their kids, and I feel like we don’t do that enough,” she said. “We don’t stop and listen to our students and to our families about what is needed in our education system and ways we can transform it.”

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