KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Family and a sense of belonging are vital to the Latino community.
As part of KSHB 41's Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, reporter Sarah Plake visited an organization bringing that sense of belonging into the classroom to support Latino students and teachers so they can be successful for their communities in the long run.
"I think Latinos do live a little differently, right? I think we as a community are really powerful," said Edgar Palacios, founder of the Latinx Education Collaborative (LEC). "We have a bunch of rich traditions, a bunch of rich stories."
Palacios' life work is to ensure those traditions are seen and respected in schools, which is why he founded the Latinx Education Collaborative.
Supporting Latino teachers and students, the group has a space in the northeast, a historically diverse neighborhood in Kansas City.
In the building, a beautiful mural by artist Socorro Reyes Ramirez paints the picture of what the organization stands for — blue and orange hexagons are representative of the community; bees represent the pollination of ideas and hard work; monarch butterflies are symbolic, particularly in the Latino community, of migration and evolution; a pensive owl perched above a book stands for wisdom and knowledge.
"I think it's important for us to have a voice, particularly in systems like education where we see our students increasingly becoming more Hispanic/Latino," Palacios said.
Nationally, one in four kindergarteners through 12th-grade students are Latino. However, many don't have teachers who look like them.
Palacios and his team have their own lived experiences with this that were validated when their research revealed only 1% of teachers in Kansas City are Latino.
"It was really disappointing in a lot of ways, that it's only 1%," Palacios said. "So, roughly 260 Latino teachers in Greater Kansas City, compared to 51,000-plus Latino students. That disparity is huge."
LEC said it wonders what graduation rates and education outcomes could look like for Latino students if more Latinos became teachers.
Susana Elizarraraz, LEC's deputy director, grew up in northeast KC and taught in the area for six years, setting the example for her school.
"That was part of my purpose — to share with students, to help affirm their identities," she said. "Affirm wherever in the world their families were from, the languages they spoke."
But Elizarraraz soon saw the need for more advocacy work to change how the system treats its diverse students and teachers.
She says listening to teachers' needs and helping them feel secure in their job is a priority, especially at a time when the nation is seeing a teacher shortage amid burnout, low pay and underrepresentation.
Such support translates to a healthier environment for Latino students.
"You would think that belonging is foundational," Elizarraraz said. "Before we get to the academics, instruction, curriculum, even social and emotional learning — people have to feel like school is for them."
Palacios believes part of the work includes harnessing the power that already exists in the Latino community.
"We transcend language, we transcend race, we transcend all these other things," said Palacios, noting Latinos come in all shades and colors. "I think it's important that we operate from a lens that this diversity is incredibly powerful and if that is represented in schools, all students benefit."
His team also started Revolución Educativa, sort of a sister group to LEC, which helps Latinos take on leadership roles in their communities like school boards, politics or neighborhood groups.
Palacios was recently appointed to the new National Latino Educator Advisory Council through Latinos for Education. He is one of six people who will help increase Latino representation in education.
"Six is not enough. We, as a community, are 60 million Latinos," Palacios said. "To have not even a percent of us talking about this at this level is also something we need to address. But it is really cool to be able to influence policy, to influence these conversations and also bring a Midwestern perspective."