teacher works with students

Reaching across cultural lines

Education professor encourages Latino families to engage in children's schools

Raised by a Cuban father and Colombian mother in Boston, Julia López-Robertson experienced first-hand the challenges that come with being a member of an under-represented population in America.

“My home life and my school life were very different,” says López-Robertson. “We spoke only Spanish at home unlike at school, and my parents never finished high school. But, they always stressed that an education is something no one can take from you, and they encouraged me and my siblings to go to college.”

Now as a professor in the College of Education, López-Robertson is helping other Latino families through her research and outreach.

“Since I joined the faculty at USC and began my research in 2006, I have seen the number of Latino children in area public schools steadily grow. Through my research, I wanted to know if there were ways to help teachers encourage Latino family engagement in school,” she says.

From 2004-14, the number of Latino students in U.S. public schools rose 25 percent — totaling 12.8 million students. South Carolina is among a handful of Southern states experiencing enormous growth in Hispanic/Latino populations, including undocumented immigrants.

“The reasons why parents don’t come to the school aren’t hard to figure out,” says López-Robertson. “Many families are in the process of learning English, and transportation is an issue. Also, we are living in an anti-immigrant society and families fear being reported to authorities. Even if the parent is documented, they may have a family member who is not and therefore, they might shy away from school involvement.”

Knowing that parental engagement increases a child’s academic success, she wanted to create a safe environment for parents so they could become involved in their child’s education without fear. She partnered with Horrell Hill Elementary School in Hopkins, South Carolina — one of 16 professional development schools that partners with the College of Education for research and student-teacher training.

“We began literacy events in schools where Latino families where seen as knowledge-holders. We hosted a language swap where English-speaking families learned a few sentences of Spanish and vice versa, we made salsa and shared recipes. We wanted the Latino families to feel comfortable, valued and included,” she says.

And slowly, the families began to trust López-Robertson and became more involved. Through her research, she focused on an idea called Community Cultural Wealth.

“This is the belief that communities of color possess a variety of strengths and resources that are often devalued by ‘larger society’ but help them maneuver and be successful in America. My goal is to help Latino children and families, as well as their teachers, understand that these cultural strengths can actually increase a children's academic success,” says López-Robertson.

For example, many of the Latino children are bilingual — an asset when searching for jobs in a global economy.

“Sometimes, the children shy away from their parents’ native language, but fluently speaking two languages is a plus for employers. I encourage them to embrace both languages and use this skill to their advantage as they seek higher education and employment,” she says.

López-Robertson also ensures that the education students she teaches at the University of South Carolina are prepared to help all children succeed. Each June, she has students in the language and literacy master’s degree program work with Latino and other under-represented students at Camp Discovery STEAM Academy. Camp Discovery is a free, full-day literacy camp focused on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. This year, the graduate students were joined by teachers from Richland 1 schools at the camp. About 60 children attend the annual camp.

“My students engage the children in daily lessons built around the children's interests. They do scavenger hunts, make slime, write their own books — anything it takes to spark a love of reading in a child,” she says.

Many of the first Latino students who attended Camp Discovery five years ago are now junior counselors, and their parents are supportive and involved.

“That’s proof that our efforts are working,” stresses López-Robertson. “The children are becoming academic leaders and their parents are part of that important process.”

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