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NEA President Lily Eskelsen García kicks off Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration

Keynote to Latino elected officials highlights challenges and opportunities due to changing demographics


WASHINGTON - September 29, 2014 -

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García today addressed the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials 10th Annual Summit on the State of Latino Education to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month. Later this week, she will participate in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual public policy conference and related events. Eskelsen García is the first Latina president of the NEA. She also serves on the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

“Hispanics are driving the tectonic demographic shifts occurring in America,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “The face of America is rapidly changing but one factor is unchanged: education remains the key to opportunity—la llave para la puerta de la oportunidad. Our future hinges on public education because our mission as educators is to teach all children, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, income, language, skills or ability or disability; we take all children and give them the keys to the doors they might want to open.”

Recounting her experience, Eskelsen García said, “My mother used to tell me to stop whining about homework. She said every class I took was a key to put in my pocket. She would tell me to learn the time tables—that’s a key. She said: memorize the Preamble to the Constitution. That’s a key. Put it in your pocket. You never know when that key might open a door for you. You should have as many keys in your pocket as you can hold.”

The first Latina president, Eskelsen García takes the helm of the NEA as one of the most influential education leaders in the country in the midst of two demographic shifts in America: Hispanics becoming a rapidly growing demographic of the American population, and the first year for U.S. schools in which a majority of students will come from minority groups.

“From demanding equitable funding for our schools, to reforming our broken immigration system, to ensuring a great public school for every student, the policy and political implications of these changes are dramatic,” said Eskelsen García.

Earlier this year the National Center for Education Statistics said that the growth in the number of Hispanic children is driving the change in the composition of U.S. public schools, which for the first time in the nation’s history are projected to have more minority students than white students enrolled. About one-quarter of the minority students are Hispanic, 15 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian and Pacific Islanders.

According to the Hispanic Institute Child Trends report, 30 percent of Latino children live in households with income below the poverty line and 45 percent live in neighborhoods with high or very high concentration of poverty. And the Center for American Progress noted that 45 percent of Latino students in our public schools are English Language Learners; 80 percent of all ELLs are Latinos.

Eskelsen García highlighted NEA’s own work to improve the education of all students, including English Language Learners. The Association has been working to break down language and cultural barriers through its ELL initiative by helping teachers understand that students can learn in their first language even as they work to become fluent in English, while emphasizing the need to respect a student’s home language and cultural heritage. The NEA ELL initiative has trained thousands of teachers since its inception six years ago.

“I believe this is the best training program for teachers of English Language Learner students,” said Eskelsen García. “We have to train teachers in the best ways to reach, inspire and teach these students, because they hold they keys to the economic future of our country.”

Another issue affecting our nation’s schools is immigration, noted Eskelsen García. NEA members recognize the importance of common-sense immigration reform now because they see first-hand the fear and distress the nation’s broken immigration system has caused to students, families, and entire communities.

“We see these aspiring Americans every day in our classrooms and our schools,” said Eskelsen García. “They are our students. They are valedictorians, honors students, idealistic, hard-working youth, our friends and our neighbors. As a nation of immigrants, how we treat new immigrants and unaccompanied children reflects our commitment to the values that define us. We will not rest until Congress acts to bring these new Americans out of the shadows of society and make their dreams a reality.”

NEA members aren’t waiting for commonsense immigration reform, however. They are moving forward and helping qualified applicants learn about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals process. In dozens of workshops hosted by NEA members in states across the country, pro-bono lawyers are helping these aspiring Americans move closer to becoming full productive, functioning and contributing members of society.

President Eskelsen García also outlined NEA’s multimillion dollar, six-year Priority Schools Campaign, which aims to engage and empower NEA members to transform schools that are most in need of improvement. In fact, this campaign already is yielding results. In Denver, the local NEA affiliate is collaborating with management to create new ways of doing business. Denver’s Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA) is a union-designed, teacher-led public school that is making a difference for urban students within the Denver Public School System.

At 98 percent, MSLA has one of the highest Latino student populations in the district, and more than 80 percent are English Language Learners. The school is exceeding schools with similar demographics in two key measures: parental engagement and student engagement.

“We are rolling up our sleeves and working with our stakeholders to create real and lasting change. Education gave me the key that allows me to serve in this capacity today. As educators, we have a moral responsibility to advance our vision of great public schools for all students. This is the right thing to do and it’s the only path to a stronger country.”

For more information about how NEA is marking Hispanic Heritage Month, please visit www.nea.org.

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The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers.

CONTACT: Miguel A. Gonzalez  (202) 822-7823, mgonzalez@nea.org