Why I Think I am Going to Guatemala

Why I Think I am Going to Guatemala

A trusted staff member was the first to hear of the conscience bending, gut wrenching details that illustrate the northbound journeys of our newest students.  Soon enough, the whole country would read about it in the news. Reports emerged covering the shocking realities of children, separated from families and detained in cages well beyond 72 hours.  

“Hace frio!  Hace frio!” A newly enrolled first grader described the cranked up air conditioning of the detention centers that made it hard to rest.  

“Nuestras mantas eran como papel de aluminio.”  Maria shared, the blankets were like aluminum foil.  The children huddled together on the concrete, like litters of puppies, to share warmth.

“Estuvimos allí mucho tiempo.”  She felt like she was in the detention center for a long time.

Then, within days, she found herself sitting upright in a rigorous first grade classroom.  New words, both academic and conversational, whizzed by like camionetas (“chicken busses”) from back home.  There were new rhythms and routines to learn including breakfast in the classroom, guided reading groups, recess, and number talks. It felt like another planet to Maria.  But this was life en “los estados unidos.”

I am going to Guatemala, to see more clearly the reality of our newest families (including strengths, beliefs, cultural practices, hopes, and lived experiences).

Why were they willing to go through all of that? What is it like in their towns and pueblos that whole families would leave by foot, for good? How deeply will children and students be impacted by the arduous journey, senseless separations and lengthy detentions? And how might we welcome, create space, and support this particular wave of new immigrants in our schools?  Who will be their “safe people?” How long will they be with us?

These are not hypothetical questions for our learning community.  

Over the last school year, our school has welcomed over thirty students, originally from Guatemala. They join an exceptionally beautiful and diverse student body; 56.6% of our students identify as Hispanic. 46.6% of them are emerging bilinguals (referred to in most schools as English Learners). No matter how unforgiving their journey was. No matter how steep their climb towards academic success will be. Regardless of their citizenship or legal status in the moment. These kids are our kids.  

I want to be bilingual.

This year we had 42 students become bilingual, mastering reading, writing, speaking and listening with English as a second language. I figure that if our students can do it, then so can I.

Multiple times a day, I get the chance to connect with parents at our school. Many of them speak Spanish fluently, but do not yet have the skills to navigate our community. I want to be able to connect with them, hear their hopes for their children, and capture their best thinking for the good of the school.

I want to lead the charge towards cultural competence.

Sure, we have a culture fair. It highlights diverse cultures represented in our student body.  Whole classrooms learn about those cultures and traditions. Students perform dances and sing songs. Parents jockey for position to get the best photos.

But is this the highest level of cultural competence? I would argue not.

How might our school be a place that welcomes all families, pronounces our cultural differences, elicits participation of all, and celebrates their successes?

I am looking forward to reconnecting with my deepest leadership motivations. I am a school leader that exists to see teams realize equitable learning results for students.  English Learners (ELs) have long been a vexing subgroup. Notably, research tells us that it takes about five years for learners to reach their full linguistic development. But other formidable factors contribute to the historical underperformance of this group of students. I’m looking forward to a) spending time in their shoes- as a second language learner and b) thinking through additional supports that we may be able to provide as they take on a new and challenging language. I lead, in part, to generate and implement creative solutions to the pressing challenges our community faces. This particular challenge demands our best thinking, our deepest empathy, and our persistent efforts. 

For this school leader, it starts with a 9;30 am flight out of Tijuana tomorrow morning, bound for Guatemala.

Follow my learning and experiences here and on twitter: @JustinMPhillips Stay tuned for upcoming post: Why I Really Went to Guatemala

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