CALDWELL — With their extended families and friends crowding the College of Idaho auditorium, the graduating class of Canyon Springs High School spoke reverently of the friends and family who helped them make it to the stage, the teachers who stood with them in hard times and the success they snatched from adversity.
"It takes strength for the phoenix to go through the fire,” said Yesenia Cuellar, one of the class speakers and the first member of her family to graduate from high school. "To my class of 2019, we have been through the fire together."
In all, 61 students graduated from Canyon Springs High School, traditionally known as the Caldwell School District’s alternative high school. While some do attend Canyon Springs because of disciplinary problems, students like Diego Ligas and Rocio Lopez told the Idaho Press they believed the school’s reputation as the alternative school for troubled students was unfair.
Roughly 66% of the students at Canyon Springs High are Latino, and the graduating class is a tight-knit group. Many like Lopez and Ligas, who are enrolling in the College of Western Idaho in the fall, plan to be first-generation college students. Others, like Cuellar, are the first in their family to graduate from high school at all.
On the same day as the Canyon Springs High school graduation, Marisela Pesina stood proudly on the stage at Nampa's Ford Idaho Center, as the line of graduates from Caldwell High School crossed the stage. The Caldwell school board member wore an embroidered dress from Mexico, with matching flowers in her hair, smiling proudly at "my kids" as they crossed the stage to receive their diplomas. Many of the Latino students embraced her as they passed. A total of 36% of Caldwell residents and 61% of the Caldwell School District are Latinos, but Pesina is the only Latino elected official in the entire city.
“It’s just a huge thing for my kids — I call them 'my' kids — to finally get to the stage and make it, and it’s a huge thing when I am on the stage," Pesina said. "I want them to realize, you made it. You’re a Latina and I’m so proud of you and so proud that your parents supported you. They could have pulled you out and put you to work, but look at you and your honor cords!"
Latino students are the largest minority group in Idaho public schools. Several Idaho schools and a few of the school districts have a Latino student majority now, like Jerome Joint School District, the Caldwell School District and the Wilder School District. These highly Latino schools draw mostly from rural areas across southern Idaho, where jobs on farms and dairies have drawn Latinos for generations. Many of the schools with the highest percentage of Latino students are elementary schools, such as Alturas Elementary in Hailey with 70% Hispanic students or Aberdeen Elementary School, with 64% Hispanic students.
Even as the Latino student population steadily grows across the state, the number of Latino or nonwhite teachers remains stagnant — especially in heavily Latino school districts. In the 10 school districts with the highest percentage of Latino students, 90% of their teachers are white.
That’s a concern for teachers, administrators and experts across the state who recognize that it’s important for students to have role models in the classroom. It’s also important for some teachers to have similar backgrounds as their students, to avoid cultural stumbles and understand the barriers to success facing different demographic groups.
"One of the barriers that came up, that everyone agreed is a barrier for all students, is that our teacher population does not mirror the community and culture of the community, the students that they’re teaching,” said Marilyn Whitney, the deputy superintendent for communications and policy at the Idaho State Department of Education. “That is an area that we are going to really focus in."
WHERE ARE THE LATINO TEACHERS?
A lack of Latino teachers is hardly an Idaho problem.
Across the country, states and school districts are struggling to hire and retain teachers and administrators who are as diverse as the students in their classrooms. In 2018, a joint analysis by the Seattle Times and The Columbian reported that, despite the increasing numbers of students of color in Washington schools, 89% of their teachers are white.
Patti Wade, the human resources director at the Caldwell School District, said recruiting and retaining teachers is difficult as it is, especially when higher-paying school districts in the Treasure Valley poach high-performing teachers. Finding new ways to attract Latino teachers as their Latino student population grows is something she’s “had on the back burner” for a while.
“This is really a concern of mine, because I realize the importance for our students to be able to connect with our teachers,” Wade said. “Really, this is my third year of recruiting, and I’m finding my circle has to get bigger and bigger when I recruit, because even when I go to the job fairs, the predominant candidates are white. I’m realizing that I really have to expand that search, or maybe look at our own backyard and try to figure out how to convince our students in Caldwell to become teachers.”
Idaho’s representation gap between teachers and the students they serve can make it hard for students to find the role models who are crucial to development and advancing beyond high school.
“Honestly, it hurts me every time I walk into a building and see only Hispanic secretaries, Hispanic cooks, Hispanic custodians,” said Stephanie Archuleta, a Caldwell School District teacher. “Because what message does that send our kids? This is what you’re good at? Aim for that? All those people do amazing jobs, I’m not even putting that down at all. … But why can’t there be somebody above that level?”
Pesina, who grew up attending Caldwell schools, said she doesn’t remember having many Latino teachers, especially ones who could understand her culture. Nor did she have many teachers pushing her to go to college, despite being the valedictorian.
“That’s why I’m on the board," Pesina said. "I want to have representation on the board.”
The Caldwell School District has changed a little bit since then, Pesina said, but not much — especially when it comes to representation. That’s why increasing Latino staff and teachers is one of her priorities as a board member.
“My model is, it’s about the kids,” Pesina said. “Yeah, we need every level of teachers, custodians, administration. But our kids need to be taken care of. I wish that our kids were going to college and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to be a teacher so bad. I want to be the Hispanic teacher or that bilingual teacher, to be the role model at Caldwell High School or at one of our elementary schools, to talk to the kids on the side, about our tamales and our abuelitas.'”
Canyon County has the largest Latino population in the state of Idaho, and it would make sense to recruit heavily from the community.
“When students walk across the stage when they graduate, I will try to put a plug in: ‘We need you to be a teacher. Come back,’” said Shalene French, the Caldwell School District superintendent.
For her part, Archuleta said it’s a kind of miracle that she became a teacher in the first place — although for different reasons. Archuleta also grew up attending schools in Caldwell and Notus as a migrant kid, moving between Texas and Idaho every year until her family decided to settle in Caldwell.
But she said many Latino students who “made it” like her aren’t necessarily interested in coming back to Idaho. Retaining your Spanish isn’t a sign that you made it, Archuleta said. Until, suddenly, you’re told that it’s an asset on the job. Being a teacher also wasn’t a sign that you made it, even if it is about giving back to your community. Coming back to Caldwell also wasn’t a sign that you made it.
So much about making it, Archuleta said, was about making it out.
“We don’t come back,” Archuleta said. “You visit, but coming back is not a sign that you made it. Because for my parents and my parents’ parents, the reason they came here was to work in the fields. They were migrating. This isn’t a place to say I made it out of. It can be, but you kind of have to change the mindset.”
Pesina believes pay is another factor, and that’s not necessarily something that individual school districts can really fix.
“We have to pay our teachers (well), so that Hispanic kids want to be teachers,” Pesina said. “It’s not necessarily our school district. It’s the legislature. It’s the state.”
Archuleta did come back to Caldwell. After a few years working for law firms in Texas, she returned to Idaho and received her teaching credential from the College of Idaho. She was a teacher at Syringa Middle School for more than a decade before she moved into the district office.
Next year, she’ll be the newest teacher at Canyon Springs High School.
“I never really noticed color until I went to Texas. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a lot more like me,’" Archuleta said. “Then, coming back, I noticed the kids notice that. It makes a difference because it helps them see that there is possibility, like anything is possible for them. I’m really open to them about me and my story.”
On the state level, officials are encouraged by the growth they see for several segments of the Hispanic student population. The number of Hispanic and Latino students participating in dual-credit programs has almost doubled in the last several years. Just 26% of Hispanic students were enrolled in dual-credit programs during the 2013-2014 school year, according to the Idaho State Department of Education. In 2016-2017 academic year, that rose to 43%.
"The fact that we have more Hispanic students taking advantage of that, I think is a good trend, and that’s going to translate into more of them going on and finishing," Whitney said.
As for the increasing number of Latino students enrolling in Idaho elementary schools, Whitney said they hope literacy efforts and increased kindergarten access — especially in Canyon County school districts — will help.
“They’re the front of the pipeline. So we need to do a really good job with them when they’re little,” Whitney said. “We’re doing a lot to make sure all students get that good foundation they need to be successful.”
‘THEY KNOW THAT THEY COUNT’
During interviews with the Idaho Press, teachers confided that French, the Caldwell superintendent, was planning a surprise for both graduations. French had been learning and practicing Spanish on her own time all year, and on May 20, French delivered her brief superintendent remarks in English and Spanish.
That’s remarkably different from past high school graduations at the Caldwell School District, when Pesina watched excited parents miss their child walk across the stage because they didn’t speak enough English to follow the ceremony, or because the person reading the names mispronounced Hispanic names so badly as to be unrecognizable. Two years ago, Pesina pushed to change that, and now one of the schools’ few Latino staff members reads the names instead.
So when French spoke to the students and families in Spanish, Pesina said the gesture brought her to tears.
"I told Dr. French, just the fact that you speak in Spanish gives people value," Pesina said. "That they’re important and you’re speaking in their native tongue. That to them, they can sit up straighter and they know that they count. That’s what we need our kids to know, too."
The effect was similar and visible upon the Canyon Springs families seated in the College of Idaho auditorium.
“Gracias a las familias, a los maestros, y al personal de Canyon Springs High School por su apoyo, agradacion y compromiso a esta clase de determinados jovenes," French told the auditorium of mostly Latino families, in English and Spanish. “Thank you to the families and Canyon Springs High School teachers and staff for their support, encouragement and commitment to this determined class of young adults."
— Idaho Press Digital Editor Ashley Miller contributed to this story.