Ever since she came to the United States at age one, Denisse Cordova, 16, hasn't been able to escape the label “undocumented Mexican.”
Her parents never finished high school. And like many of her friends at the Aldine School in Houston, Texas, she comes from a low-income family.
And yet Cordova has an ambitious dream. “I want to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] and become a researcher and physicist,” she says. “Other students who graduated from Aldine now go to MIT. Knowing that has helped me to believe that I can do it, too."
According to new research, there is one thing that could help her achieve this: Latino teachers.
There is hard scientific evidence that the presence of Hispanics in public-sector jobs has a positive impact on Hispanics, beyond simple symbolism or pride. The same seems to be true about education, especially in Texas.
Several studies show that more Latino students pass standardized tests, attend classes, register for advanced courses, take university entrance exams and get better grades when there are more Latinos on school boards – all of which increase students' chances of getting into college.
Hispanic teachers have an even stronger positive impact on Latino students. That’s according to a study by Kenneth J. Meier, a Texas A&M political scientist and one of the leading researchers in the academic field known as “representative bureaucracy.”
The study found that Latino teachers have an impact on Latino students passing standardized tests and taking advanced classes and college admissions exams.
Meier says the improved results are due to direct contact between teachers and students. School boards matter, too, he explained. “Members of school boards play a role in hiring the superintendent, who influences the hiring of teachers,” he says.
Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case across the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 7.8 percent of teachers in the United States are Latino. About 13.3 million Hispanics are enrolled in U.S. public schools this year, or 26 percent of all students.
When asked how many Hispanic teachers she had in the past three years, Cordova said she could not remember a single one.
Aldine isn't a wealthy town. Almost three-quarters of students in the district are Latino, and about 82 percent are economically disadvantaged. In Texas overall, Hispanics make up 51.3 percent of the student population, and 60.2 percent are economically disadvantaged.
Meier has identified Aldine as “a place where Hispanic teachers are consistently doing an excellent job.”
That's praise for Viola García, vice president of the school board and one of Cordova's “allies.”
The administrator “makes me feel there's someone on the board who understands Hispanics students,” said Cordova.
García joined the Aldine school board in 1992, when her daughters were students in the district. She says her presence on the board had an impact at the beginning, when the majority of the students were white and less attention was paid to minority students.
“We asked ourselves questions like, 'Who were the members of the selection committees?' 'Do we have representation from all the students?' 'Are we selecting administrators, counselors and teachers who have the cultural background to relate to the students and understand their needs?' 'Do we have literature that is adequate for all our students?'” García said.
“It was nothing dramatic, but asking those questions led the board to review those factors,” she added.
Hispanic teachers and administrators bring an important element to the table: empathy.
They recognize cultural differences, can seek out bilingual employees to offer better services and expand classes for advanced students.
“Sometimes clients respond better to services offered by someone who knows their reality," said Meier. "Citizens tend to look for and trust bureaucrats who share their experiences. Latino students see Latino teachers as examples to follow.” And that applies not only to education, but to other areas like health services and public administration.
Nicolás Perla, who teaches Spanish, has been teaching in the Aldine district for 17 years.
“Some of my students are Salvadoran, and they immediately connect with me. Not just because I'm Salvadoran, but also because I'm Latino,” he said.
“I think they see themselves in me, there's a connection. They know I understand them,” he said. “I think they see me and say, 'Well, if he can be a teacher, then I can be a teacher, or a doctor or an engineer. Why not?' They have a model they can follow.”
INCREASING THE NUMBER OF LATINO TEACHERS
Despite the positive impact that Hispanic teachers can have on their communities, the numbers remain relatively low.
While the percentages of both minority students and teachers have both increased, student growth far outpaced that of Hispanic teachers.
Nationwide, Hispanic and African American applicants for teaching jobs are hired at rates lower than those of white candidates, according to a Brookings Institution study.
Four years after graduating, 19.3 percent of the white applicants had worked as teachers, but the percentage dropped to 16.3 percent for African Americans and 17.6 percent for Hispanics.
Many Hispanic students in Aldine excel in Texas’ standardized exams. From 2003 to 2011, for example, the percentage of Hispanics passing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test rose from 45 to 77 percent.
Aldine's success earned the district a prize as the best urban U.S. school district in 2009, when the low-income Hispanic students in all grades scored better in reading and math than their counterparts around the state.
But since 2012 – when the more difficult STAAR test was launched – the overall performance of the students in the district has declined.
The problem is made worse by the arrival of low-income students from immigrant families or students who speak another language and are just learning English, according to an analysis by the consulting firm Education First.
During the 2014-2015 school year, when Aldine had 4,235 teachers, 25 percent of them were Hispanic. Meanwhile, the student body was 71 percent Hispanic.
Aldine now has more than 3,900 teachers. The district did not respond to Univision News’ questions about how many of those are Hispanic.
And while the percentage of Latino teachers in Aldine had risen since 2004, the gap with Hispanic students is now even bigger. Ten years ago, 19.5 percent of Aldine's teachers and 44.7 percent of its students were Hispanic.
Texas school boards now have 1,050 Hispanic members, double the number they had 20 years ago and nearly half the 2,344 Latinos on all U.S. school boards, according to a database from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).
But those numbers have not led to a sufficient increase in the number of Latino teachers in Texas schools. The state has the third biggest gap in the nation between the percentages of Latino students and teachers, behind New Mexico and California.
“The opportunities are there, but there are too few of us Hispanic teachers for an immense population of Latino students,” Perla said.