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Latino superintendent hopes to encourage U-46 students, parents
By Elena Ferrarin | Daily Herald Staff

Jose Torres is the new superintendent for Elgin Area School District U-46.


Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

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Published: 8/18/2008 12:18 AM

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When students in Elgin Area School District U-46 go back to class on Aug. 27, they will meet a new superintendent - José Torres, the district's first Latino superintendent and one of only two in Illinois, according to current State Board of Education records.

Torres will head the second-largest school district in Illinois with 53 schools and more than 41,000 students, about 41 percent of them Latino.

Torres previously served as regional superintendent for Chicago Public Schools' Area 14, which includes 25 elementary and middle schools in the city's southwest side.

In a conversation with Reflejos, the Daily Herald's Spanish-language publication, Torres answered questions about Latino students' poor performance on standardized tests, how long students should stay in bilingual education and the strengths of Latino students and families. Here is an edited transcript.

Q: What does it mean to you to be the first Latino superintendent for District U-46?

A: I don't want to define my superintendency by my ethnicity. Just being a superintendent is a big privilege. That I can inspire a group of people - Hispanic, African-Americans, anybody who has struggled out of poverty to get an education - I feel great about that. Because I happen to be Latino, different kids are going to be identifying with me in different ways. Because I happen to be Latino and happen to be bilingual, it creates more opportunities to reach more kids and reach more people.

Q: What can Latino students and their families expect from you that they didn't get from past superintendents?

A: They can have access to me in either English or Spanish without interpretation. That's a big thing for parents. I sometimes revert to Spanish when I am speaking from the heart, and you can't get closer to the heart than children. It's difficult to explain to the administrator what problem there is with your child through an interpreter. So I think for some of them it will mean that they are more comfortable. That doesn't mean I will be meeting with parents all the time; there are administrators for that.

Q: Standardized test scores, such as ISAT scores, for Latino students in the district are typically lower than those of Caucasian and Asian students. What do you think are the causes of that?

A: Scores are only one measure of achievement, even if a very important and very public one. Latino students who are non-English-speaking are already behind in their English skills. But even kids that are born and raised here, who have the language skills but come from poverty - poverty is a better indicator of achievement than race or ethnicity. These kids start kindergarten already with a gap, and if we don't intervene, the gap gets larger. Early intervention is really necessary, and we're going to be looking closely at our preschools and early childhood programs.

The other piece is what teachers in classrooms, administrators and parents expect of kids. In high school I never saw a counselor. There are people who are Latinos and black whose counselors told them, "you are not college material."

Finally, the material that is presented to kids has to be rigorous, at or above grade level. Just because the kids aren't at that grade level, we can't just teach them below grade level.

Q: What are your thoughts on the debate about immersion versus bilingual education for non-English proficient students?

A: Research says that if you teach kids in their native language, when they transition to English they are going to learn it faster and they are going to achieve at higher levels. Bilingual programs, like any program, have to be implemented with fidelity. You can't have a Spanish teacher who is not proficient in Spanish, or an English teacher who doesn't speak English very well. People will say that the "sink or swim" approach (immersion) worked for them for their Russian family when they moved here, and yes, kids will eventually learn that way, but the research is pretty solid.

Q: There is always the question of how long students should stay in bilingual programs.

A: Researcher Jim Cummins says that in one to three years kids are able to learn basic interpersonal communication skills. That's why there are kids who don't speak English in August who by December can relate to their English-speaking peers. But research says it takes five to seven years to have cognitive academic language proficiency, which is the language of science, the language of math. So kids can be exited from the (bilingual) program, and yet they will fail academic language.

Q: What about the success of the dual language program at Channing Elementary? Why isn't that more widely used throughout the district?

A: The Channing program I am told is widely successful. Kids learn both languages and maintain both languages, and I think that's a great approach. I don't know yet why it's not used more. To expand a program you have to look at the model, and you have to look at the costs. We are going to be looking at dual language as part of my research into the district.

Q: Families that speak no or limited English often have difficulties understanding the U.S. school system - sometimes even basic concepts like AP classes are unknown to parents. What is your plan to address that?

A: From the board level, there is an interest in getting parents more involved and engaged, and from my personal level as well. We have a parent education program with three of four staff members. A lot of the title programs, like Title I, bilingual, special education, have a parent outreach component. There are also home-school bilingual liaisons. We have a lot of elements but not under one umbrella. So we have to find out what we are doing, and how we can do more.

Q. Are there difference between suburban Latino students and their counterparts in Chicago?

A. I don't know yet. My experience in Chicago was one where in 24 out of 25 schools, 98 percent of students were African-American. Out of 14,000 students, 14 were ELL (English Language Learners) students. What I do know is that some students, whether they are immigrants, first or second-generation - and I don't know if it happens here - are ashamed of speaking Spanish, for whatever reason. So just me going into the playground with my suit, and I say "¿hola, Como están?" that gives them permission (to speak Spanish).

Q. What are some misconceptions about Latino students?

A. I can't speak for other people.

Q. Some stereotypes, then.

A. Once I was asked to talk about Hispanic culture, and I didn't know what to present. So I started researching some of the stereotypes: That we are always late. That we are family-oriented. That we don't volunteer. And then I happened to look at an article on the culture of poverty, and guess what? People who are poor don't volunteer, because they work and they don't have time to volunteer. They are family-oriented, because that's their support system. I realized what I was saying wasn't just about Hispanics, it was just that people who are poor do that kind of stuff.

Q. What are some of the strengths that Latino students and their families can capitalize on?

A. The American dream is alive and well in immigrant communities. That's why they come to the United States. The prize at the end of the rainbow is that you will succeed in the United States. Many of them have strong family support, and there is a strong desire for them to succeed. Even though they might not know much about education, they want their kids to go to college.