This is Your Future

When José Hernandez was a small boy, his schooling followed the crops that ripened in the fields of California. As his parents worked their way north through the state picking vegetables and fruit, their young son would bounce from classroom to classroom, spending time in three or four different schools. Finally in the fall when the last crops were in, the family would head home to Mexico for a few months, hopefully with enough homework to keep Jose busy. Last year Hernandez took a voyage of a different kind, travelling to the International Space Station as a U.S. Astronaut.

“It was not the journey of one man,” Hernandez said during a recent speech in Washington D.C. His path to success was paved by hard work, persistence and education, and he was helped along by supportive parents, teachers and colleagues.

Despite their own lack of education, Hernandez’s parents expected him to go to college. One day after he had toiled in the hot fields, his father told him, “This is your future if you don’t get an education.” Today, Hernandez tries to impart that same message to other young Latinos. He emphasizes the importance not only of education in general, but of the academic fields that are expected to create the best jobs in the 21st Century---Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, which are collectively known by the acronym STEM.

Hernandez is not alone in highlighting the importance of STEM education. LATINO Magazine hosted a conference on the issue in Washington recently, which NEA was proud to help sponsor. And President Obama recently said the U.S. must do a better job in STEM education.

“We are right now being outpaced by our competitors,” the president said. “That’s not acceptable to me and I know it’s not acceptable to you. And that’s why my Administration has set a clear goal: to move from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math education over the next decade.”

The simple fact is, the U.S. will not remain economically competitive in the 21st Century unless we produce more good scientists and engineers. And with Latinos now accounting for one out of every four kindergarten students in the nation, they must be part of the equation.

“If we’re going to stay Number One,” says Hernandez, “we need to increase the number of kids [taking STEM courses] especially minorities.”

In other words, we must find ways to overcome the barriers that have traditionally discouraged Latino students from pursuing science, math and engineering. About half of our 10 million Latino students are English Language Learners. In many cases, a lack of proficiency in English has equaled a lack of confidence they could tackle other subjects. But if educators know how to work with these students, language differences don’t have to be a barrier.

This is why NEA is working hard to train ELL teachers in the best practices for reaching these students. Ricardo Rincon, a 5th grade teacher in Las Cruces, NM, has been part of the ELL teacher training cadre for three years. He has seen how enlightened approaches can pique student interest in science and math. He has also seen how good STEM education can actually help students become more proficient in English.

For example, many terms in the scientific lexicon have Latin roots, so the English words are similar to Spanish. When students see these connections, they understand that the knowledge they have acquired in their first language can be applied to new content in English.

“These cognates help students identify similarities in the languages and realize that learning content, particularly math and science, is not too different from what they have already experienced in their dominant language,” said Rincon.

Individual attention, use of computers and other technology, and use of visual elements are all important practices for teaching ELL students, Rincon said. It is also important to let students know that they can learn science and math, even if they are struggling with English. In Hernandez’s case, the difficulty of learning English actually motivated him to pursue math, where he excelled.

“I was always doing well in math or science,” Hernandez said, even though he didn’t speak English until he was 12. “I think that was my refuge. Math is a pretty universal language.”

Hernandez wanted to be an astronaut from the time he was a young boy, when Americans walked on the moon. His parents encouraged his dream. But many young people, especially Latinos, receive no encouragement to study math or science, he said.

“In my schooling career through high school I had special teachers that encouraged me,” he said. “But in the overall system I can see where kids can call thru the cracks.”

Hernandez is doing his part to encourage young people through his Reaching for the Stars Foundation. In addition to awarding scholarships, Reaching for the Stars arranges speakers, workshops and visits to college campuses for fifth grade students.

Every young student has dreams of their own. It is our job as educators to give them the support and knowledge that will enable them to pursue those dreams. NEA is proud of the work we do in training ELL teachers to prepare students for life and work in the 21st Century.

By Dennis Van Roekel is president of the NEA.