Cultural immersion trip to Mexico opens teachers’ eyes. What can they do to better serve their Latino students?

Teacher Cecily Boyd of Holt Elementary tackles chile rellenos while taking part in a cooking class with host mom Ofelia Manzano in Mexico.
Teacher Cecily Boyd of Holt Elementary tackles chile rellenos while taking part in a cooking class with host mom Ofelia Manzano in Mexico. Submitted photo

A recent trip to Guanajuato, Mexico as part of the Duke University’s Visions program proved to be an eye-opening experience for Cecily Boyd, a first-grade teacher at Holt Elementary Language Academy.

Boyd and six other teachers — she and three others from Holt and thre others from Burton Magnet Elementary — made the trek to Guanajuato the week of June 10-17 to learn more about the children and families from Mexico and Central America who are increasingly showing up in Durham Public Schools.

Guanajuato is located in Central Mexico about 224 miles northwest of Mexico City.

“I now understand how our parents feel when they come to America and do not speak the language,” said Boyd, who does not speak Spanish.

Channa Pickett, the senior program coordinator for Visions, said the language barrier some of the teachers experienced is an invaluable and enlightening part of the trip.

“That’s part of the experience, to feel what it’s like be in another country and recognize how difficult it can be if you don’t speak the language,” Pickett said. “I think it’s really impactful.”

Both Burton and Holt have student enrollments that are more than 50 percent Hispanic.

Hispanic students make up about 30 percent of DPS’ enrollment, trailing only African-American students who make up 46 percent of the school district’s enrollment.

Only two of the seven teachers on the Visions trip, which was sponsored by Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, were fluent in Spanish.

So, a lot of the conversations that took place between the Durham teachers and the parents of school children and school representatives in Guanajuato required interpreters.

Spending time with families

During the trip, the teachers spent time with host families cooking and learning more about the culture, taking tours of historic sites and visiting abandoned silver mines.

The teachers also spent time with Mexico school administrators, teachers and parents to learn about the education system in Guanajuato.

They studied immigration issues and discussed the differences between the Guanajuato and North Carolina schools.

“Learning where our kids are coming from is definitely important to us,” Boyd said.

Boyd said the commonality between the parents in Durham and those in Mexico was clear.

“I think that all families just want the best for their children,” Boyd said.

The Durham teachers also attended a presentation with the Bajio Community Foundation, a Mexican nonprofit that promotes local infrastructure and economic development in rural areas.

Ideas for Durham schools

Pickett said the trip was designed so teachers would come back with ideas to better serve immigrant students and their families.

“They come back with energy and ideas to develop in their own schools to help improve students’ achievements,” Pickett said.

For the teachers at Holt, one of the goals was to find ways to increase parental involvement among Hispanic parents.

“We’re looking for ways to make them feel more comfortable coming to school and joining the PTA,” Boyd said. In Guanajuato, she said parents and schools stage many culturally-based festivals.

When Holt, a year-round school, opens in July, Boyd said she and the other teachers who took the trip will begin to look at ways to boost involvement, including asking Hispanic parents to help with festivals and programs that are culturally based.

Holding PTA meetings in the mornings when parents drop off students was another idea generated by the trip.

“I left with a brain teeming with ideas about what we want to do at our school,” said Holly Woodard, an ESL teacher at Holt. “If we can find a way to involve them, it will be rewarding on all sides.”

Woodard said most Hispanic students at Holt were born in the United States, but a great many of their parents are originally from central Mexico.

She said more immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras have also begun to show up in the DPS classrooms.

Woodard said the families, especially those from rural areas, are desperately trying to escape poverty and to give their children better opportunities.

“They all come here so their children can get a better education and have the chance at a good job,” Woodard said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

About ‘Visions’

The Visions program has taken teachers and administrators to Santa Elena, Yucatan, Mexico and to Guanajuato, Mexico to explore the Mexican school system and local culture and to learn about the social, political and economic circumstances from which many of Durham’s immigrant families come.

Before and after each trip, participants work closely with Latino parent leaders at their own schools to identify common goals and develop creative strategies to achieve those goals. They also learn about Durham’s Latino community through workshops, discussions and field trips.

The school-based initiatives that have emerged from the Visions program include better interpretation services for school events, outreach to and recruitment of Latino parents to School Improvement Teams and Parent Teacher Associations, support for mentoring and service programs led by Latino students and training school personnel on the district’s language access resources.