The sounds of Spanish flowed easily when families streamed into an open house at Charlotte East Language Academy, a new public school in the heart of Charlotte’s international community.
It seems natural that Carmen Concepción, the daughter of Mexican and Cuban immigrants, was chosen as principal. The school’s Spanish-English magnet program is designed to tap the strengths of the fastest-growing segment of the school district’s population, developing bilingual youths — American-born and immigrants — who will have an edge in the global market.
Concepción is one of only three Hispanic principals in a district that had more than 35,000 Latino students last year, making up 24 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ student body. That’s less than 2 percent representation in a district with 173 principals.
CMS and UNC Charlotte are out to change that. Principal intern Mauricio Restrepo, a former high school Spanish teacher, is working with Concepción to open the new school. He’s one of about a dozen local Latino educators being prepared to take the helm in CMS.
That’s not just about checking a diversity box, educators say. With the young Hispanic population growing while black and white enrollment shrinks, those young people increasingly hold the key to the region’s civic and economic health.
“If they can’t see themselves as the occupations that you aspire them to hold, how do you expect that they get there?” Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, whose grandfather was Mexican, told a group of principals in June. “If the only time that they see a Mexican is at the end of a broom, they’ll think that’s all they can do, is sweep up.”
The CMS push is part of a broader quest to develop young Latino leaders across the Charlotte region, said Federico Rios, the city of Charlotte’s immigrant and integration manager. It’s a position City Manager Marcus Jones created earlier this year in hopes of better engaging all immigrant communities.
“It’s a large contingency of our future,” Rios said. “How do we find the talent and cultivate the talent?”
Whites overrepresented in CMS
While white children became a minority in CMS long ago — they accounted for 28 percent of last year’s enrollment — white adults are a majority among faculty. As of this summer, two-thirds of CMS teachers and almost 60 percent of principals were white.
Nowhere is the gap as gaping as it is for Hispanics. African-Americans, the largest group in CMS with 38 percent of student enrollment, account for 35 percent of principals.
“We’ve made tremendous progress in the area of African-Americans,” said Jim Watson, an associate professor in the UNCC Department of Educational Leadership. A couple of years ago, he approached CMS about recruiting potential Latino leaders from the ranks and offering scholarships to help them become principals.
“We were like, ‘Fantastic!’ “ said Jevelyn Bonner-Reed, who’s in charge of the district’s “principal pipeline” program.
Research has found numerous benefits to students who see their own racial or ethnic identity reflected in school leadership and faculty, including higher levels of optimism, more role models and better connections between schools and families.
“Because minority principals share experiences and cultural understandings with students who come from the same background, they can link students, parents and other educational stakeholders while modeling success for everyone,” said a 2009 research summary in Educational Leadership magazine.
Or as Alis Mulero, one of the CMS principals-in-training, puts it: “We’re like a bridge between two worlds.”
Challenge starts early
Mulero’s path has taken her from Puerto Rico, where she graduated from high school, to Florida, where she tackled community college while learning English, to Charlotte, where she’s a literacy facilitator and dual language coordinator at Starmount Academy.
She says she noticed the dearth of Latino principals when she came to CMS and wondered if she’d have a chance to advance. She was thrilled to be invited to a recruiting meeting and later tapped for the CMS Aspiring Leaders program, which gives future principals an intensive summer prep session.
“I want to jump in and be part of that change,” she said.
But the challenge of filling the pipeline starts early for CMS, where less than 3 percent of almost 9,000 teachers are Hispanic.
Alejandra Garcia, principal of the new Governor’s Village STEM Academy, says some states with large Spanish-speaking populations offer stipends for bilingual educators. North Carolina doesn’t, which puts the state at a recruiting disadvantage, said Garcia, who was born in Colombia and has worked in New York and Miami.
So far, CMS and UNCC have held two recruiting meetings for Latino employees, with about 40 attending each session. There are a number of options for preparing.
Restrepo, encouraged by one of the recruitment sessions, applied for the North Carolina Principal Fellows Program, a competitive scholarship program that pays for a year of classes and a yearlong internship. He was one of 49 fellows chosen that year and had talked to Concepción about shadowing her at Oaklawn Language Academy, where she was principal at the time. When she was tapped to open the new school, she asked if Restrepo still wanted to intern with her.
He did. Restrepo, the American-born son of Colombian immigrants, grew up speaking English and Spanish and remains fluent in both. He loves the chance to expand opportunities for others to do the same. He, like many of the other principals-in-training, say the goal shouldn’t be for immigrant children to abandon their native language but for them to become fluent and literate in their native tongue and English.
Others are in training through the CMS Principal Pipeline Initiative, which includes opportunities to take classes at UNCC, Queens or Wingate universities. The district has 11 Latino candidates somewhere in the process. Once they finish, they’ll compete for available jobs.
It’s more than language
The importance of having Latino leaders goes beyond the ability to speak Spanish. Understanding the cultures that parents come from can open doors to a group that’s sometimes seen as uninvolved in education, several current and aspiring principals say.
Concepción, who says she grew up poor, knows that Spanish-speaking parents are often reluctant to speak up in large groups. So she arranges small-group sessions where families may feel more comfortable. She says parents she met as an assistant principal at Montclaire Elementary, a majority-Hispanic neighborhood school, have stayed in touch as their children moved into middle and high school.
Francisco Flores, who came from Venezuela as a teen and now teaches English as a second language at Joseph Grier Academy, knows what it’s like to struggle with classwork while trying to learn English. As a principal, he says, he could encourage teachers not to mistake lack of fluency with lack of ability.
“Once they overcome that problem, they are brilliant in their classrooms,” Flores said.
Dominique Veloz, a Hough High social studies teacher whose parents are Dominican and African-American, understands that culture can be complicated. She says she’s seen many Hispanic parents who are reluctant to question authority, so she looks for ways to empower them as advocates.
“It’s really important to students to see themselves in positions of power,” Veloz added.
Domingo Figueroa, a kindergarten teacher at Oaklawn who’s also training to become a principal, sees himself setting an example as a Puerto Rican man teaching young children — and also as a father of three.
“When they look at me, they can see themselves,” Figueroa said. “The better prepared they are, they will contribute to society.”