One of the biggest challenges for writing about traditionally underserved demographics in American education is to remember to take an assets-based approach. It can be easy to focus on what students from these backgrounds lack, rather than what they bring to the table. This is a common problem for education policy discussions orbiting Latino students. There’s no question that these students frequently face serious challenges: over one-third of Latinos are enrolled at high-poverty schools. Meanwhile, fewer than one in twenty white students are enrolled in such schools.

But these sorts of challenges are far from the whole story. When asked, young Latinos are more likely than any other young demographic to respond that “college is important for getting ahead in life.” This should come as no surprise, given that Latino parents respond with similarly high levels of enthusiasm for education.

The mothers interviewed also see themselves as teachers who have strengths and wisdom to share. 

A recent Child Trends Hispanic Institute paper explores some of the assets that Latina mothers bring to parenting and their children’s education. Researcher Manica Ramos interviewed 43 immigrant Latina mothers with preK-aged children and annual family incomes generally under $35,000.

She found mothers both willing to make sacrifices for their children and able to articulate how their efforts might improve these students’ trajectories in the long run. Ramos reported that “There was unanimous agreement among the mothers interviewed that education was the key to a better life and being ‘better’ or ‘great.’”

The mothers interviewed also see themselves as teachers who have strengths and wisdom to share. They take seriously the dual parenting challenges of providing their children with moral guidance and moral support. In particular, this means instilling a strong work ethic and setting high expectations for their children at school and at home. It also means providing a strong, stable emotional foundation at home and encouraging children to persist in the face of difficulties.

In sum, Ramos found that Latina mothers are—contrary to the deficit-focused lens often applied to them—committed, caring mothers. They care deeply for their children and can articulate how their parenting style fits into their broader theory of how their children’s lives will improve.

And yet, from schools’ perspective, Latino parents can frequently appear to be less involved than others. Ramos suggests that this can be rectified through targeted, intentional family engagement strategies that take seriously Latino parents’ cultural commitments. This can be as simple as teachers reaching out to ask parents the sorts of questions Ramos asked: how do parents view their children? How do they measure their children’s success? What are their dreams for their children?

Given the painfully slow progress the United States has made at narrowing the Latino-White achievement gap, there’s no question that we should be leveraging these families as the assets that they are.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams