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OPINION

What do Spanish-speaking parents want in the next Boston schools superintendent?

In what feels like a significant milestone, the Boston School Committee asked parents about the search in Spanish.

Rafaela Polanco García, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who was recently appointed to the Boston School Committee, is far more representative of parents in the district than any school committee member in recent history. Once homeless, she lives in public housing and requires an interpreter to attend school committee meetings. In this file photo, Polanco greets mothers at the Blackstone Elementary School.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

What are parents looking for in the next superintendent of the Boston Public Schools? The answer depends on which parents you ask. This time — the third search that the city is conducting for a district leader in eight years — the Boston School Committee asked parents, and the school community at large, in Spanish.

It’s about time.

The Spanish-language virtual session, which offered live interpretation in English, was held Tuesday and appears to be the first of its kind in a Boston superintendent search process. In a system that has struggled to meaningfully engage Latinx families despite the overrepresentation of Latinos in the district’s student body, the effort feels like a significant milestone. For instance, it was only in 2020 that the Boston School Committee added live Spanish-language interpretation to its meetings along with four other languages — Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and American Sign Language. And on Tuesday evening, Spanish-speaking parents were able to publicly comment on the qualifications they’d like to see in a new superintendent and even pose questions for potential candidates — all in their native language.

“As a mother, I feel proud that this important meeting is being conducted in our language, Spanish,” Maria Mejia, a Blackstone Elementary School parent, said in Spanish at the public meeting. “My opinion is that a bilingual person should be selected [as the next superintendent].” Mejia, a Roxbury resident, also had a message for the next district leader: “If you don’t have amor y vocación [love and vocation,] then you shouldn’t take this job.”

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A screengrab of the BPS superintendent search committee's community listening session in Spanish.Handout

According to Lorena Lopera, a Boston School Committee member who also sits on the superintendent search committee, the idea to have a session in Spanish came from the school board chair, Jeri Robinson. “She’s been learning a lot from having Rafaela Polanco García on the committee,” Lopera said in an interview. Polanco García, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, is the committee’s first member who doesn’t speak fluent English and thus requires live interpretation during meetings. Polanco García’s presence “is a reminder that this is what a significant number of our students and families look like and need,” said Lopera, who’s also a Latina immigrant.

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Indeed, about 43 percent of students in the Boston Public Schools are Latino. And nearly half of students in the district don’t have English as their first language. “Spanish is the most active language group in the district,” Lopera said. About 100 people attended Tuesday’s listening session in Spanish, she added.

Among the themes that emerged from those Spanish-speaking parents during the public meeting was the need to have a superintendent from Boston with institutional knowledge of the district. “Someone who currently has, or has had, kids at BPS,” said Minerva Casillas. Other desired qualifications: someone who’s Latinx, someone who understands the cultural nuances and concerns of Hispanic parents, someone who can stay 10 years.

The session was also an opportunity for parents to talk about broader concerns. “What is the plan to help kids who fell behind [academically] due to COVID-19?” asked Sonia Maldonado, a grandmother from the South End. The district’s transportation challenges were also a recurrent theme. “What is the plan to improve the situation with buses?” asked Juana Ulloa, mother of three BPS students. Ulloa said she is concerned about the lack of bus monitors to watch kids inside the buses. Another concern that was brought up in the chat during the meeting was the absence of a Citywide Parent Council representative on the search committee.

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Ultimately, it seemed like parents were hungry for more and better communication in Spanish from the district. It was clear their identity as Latino parents, and their language, were being affirmed, said Lopera. And it was also an opportunity to flip the script, if you will. “Members of the search committee who don’t speak Spanish but attended the session and had to have simultaneous English interpretation is something that our Spanish-speaking parents experience day-to-day,” Lopera told me. “There’s something so powerful about flipping those roles.”

An improved level of Latino and Spanish-language communication will deliver far more than cultural recognition. More engaged parents translates into better academic performance for their children. And BPS has neglected to give Latino parents the mike for far too long. The school district must give them more opportunities to advocate for themselves and their children in Spanish.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.