Hispanic Education Highlighted at Twitter Town Hall Meeting

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by Lois Elfman

On Wednesday during what was billed as a Twitter Town Hall event, more than 400 participants accessed a live video stream on their computing devices as tweeted questions and answers pertaining to Hispanic education access and success produced a multilayered dialogue with the U.S, Education Secretary.

Some of the questions were familiar — how to make higher education affordable and how to deal with undocumented students — but all the answers provided a valuable guide in the efforts to achieve Hispanic educational success. Education Secretary Arne Duncan responded to questions for the first 30 minutes of the event and then José Rico, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, took the microphone for the remainder of the hour.

Questions were submitted in English and Spanish via Twitter both prior to and during the virtual town hall using the hashtag #HispanicEd. The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics also tweeted in English and Spanish throughout the hour as well as adding information and suggestions for action afterward.

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address included several educational topics. He has set the goal of returning the United States to being number one in the world for college graduation by 2020. The Hispanic population is expected to play a critical role in achieving that goal.

Rico’s office has done 14 Hispanic Action Summits around the country with one coming up on Feb. 18 near Cleveland. One of the top issues is education and affordability for the Latino community.

Duncan noted that the goal of all Hispanic young people has to be higher education as that’s where job opportunities are. “We have significantly simplified the financial aid form,” he said. The form is on the Department of Education website, www.ed.gov, and should take less than 30 minutes to fill out. There has been an increase in Pell grants.

There also has been a huge incentive in the American Opportunity Tax Credit, or AOTC, for people who enter public service after earning their degrees. For example, after 10 years in the classroom, a public school teacher would have the balance of any student loan erased.

Duncan said from 2009 to 2010, there was a 24 percent increase in the number of Latinos going into college, a historic jump. “We have to make sure they don’t just go, they graduate,” he said.

Regarding undocumented students, Duncan said, “We have to do everything we can not just to keep undocumented students in high school, but ultimately our country has to pass the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors).” He said during his time working in the Chicago school system he saw many gifted young students for whom the door to higher education was slammed shut. He recently met with a group of DREAMers in Washington, D.C., who were smart and committed to higher education. He said there is a battle in Congress, which has been frustrating, but he and President Obama will not stop until it is passed.

In the interim, a number of states have provided in-state tuition for undocumented students.

The ability to attract and retain great talent to the teaching profession is important to all students. It is important that there be diversity among teachers, experts have proclaimed. A very small percentage of teachers are Latino and less than one in 50 teachers is a male Latino. AOTC is expected to be a motivator, as so many young people shy away from a career path such as teaching because of the cost of higher education and the feeling that they will not be able to pay off student loans.

To serve the Hispanic community as well as other minorities and all underserved populations, Duncan encouraged schools to become community centers. After the school day, offer GED classes, ESL classes, family literacy nights and tutoring. “When you have families learning together and schools become the hearts of the neighborhood, great things happen,” he said. To achieve this, he encouraged non-profit organizations to partner with schools. The private sector also is needed, he noted.

Another Twitter question involved parental engagement. The Department of Education is asking Congress to double its budget for parent engagement—going from about $135 million a year to $280 million a year. It’s not only important for elementary schoolers, but all the way through the education continuum, officials have emphasized.  

A heavily trending question was about getting more Latinos to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. “Encourage things like robotics competitions and science fairs,” Duncan said. Exposure is key, and social media can play a huge role in spreading the information and encouragement about STEM.

Technology and learning on the Internet also are great tools, according to Duncan. While everything may not be available in the classroom, there are opportunities to learn online. He mentioned Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org, which has a huge library of video lessons that can be viewed for free.

For-profit schools often attract minority students. One tweeter asked how students can be protected from being cheated out of money. Rico said last year the Department of Education put forth regulations around for-profit colleges. Also, to increase transparency in all educational settings, there is a web portal on the department’s site, College Transparency Project, which shows the job placements for all programs around the country.

Rico encouraged people to be engaged on Twitter, Facebook and in blogs in sharing information valuable to the Hispanic community.

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