During my freshman-year orientation in college, in the fall of 1997, several people asked me if I knew Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the queen of Tejano music. It struck me as a strange question. The answer was “no.” Other students asked me for help with Spanish homework, if I was “an affirmative action student,” and if I was related to Elián González. I was complimented for my lack of accent and for being “smart for a Hispanic.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but these were microaggressions and these interactions contributed to a feeling that I just didn’t belong there. That freshman year was my first living outside New Mexico, which has a rich Hispanic culture. Throughout my time in undergrad in D.C., later in graduate school in Indiana, and as an adult, I experienced many more microaggressions and feelings of not belonging.
I’m glad to say I also had positive interactions during my freshman year that did make me feel connected: when I interned for Congressman Xavier Becerra, and he made ojitos at his young daughters; when I heard live mariachis at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration; and later, in every interaction with a graduate school professor who, like me, was a Latina from the Southwest. Such relationships are critical, especially for young people. Research shows that every child must have at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult to do well in life.
As we collectively commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month, I hope we recognize the work we need to be doing in our schools is not just about tacos, salsa music and César Chávez, but also about making sure that each and every Latino child feel like they genuinely belong there. They must feel safe, supported, seen and challenged. We must place a special emphasis on academic belonging, a sense of connection to learning and an identity as a scholar.
Belonging matters. And we have work to do. The percentage of Hispanic students who report feeling “awkward” in school at least half the time rose from 26% to 32% from 2017 to 2019 and is higher than any other racial group, besides American Indian/Alaska Native at 38%. Less than half of Hispanic students report feeling happy in school, a number that has also decreased since 2017.
A University of Chicago study found students with a strong sense of academic belonging interpret learning challenges as a normal part of their experience, rather than feeling out of place. Students who do not feel like they belong, withdraw and are likely to put forth less effort to learn.
Hispanic students report some of the lowest rates of academic belonging, measured, for example, by the extent to which they think of themselves as good at math or wanting to be seen as good at math.
Belonging takes intentionality and resources. It requires a hard look at current practices and requires us to reprioritize time, people and money toward fostering belonging.
Educators can prioritize communication and engagement, joint problem-solving and social connectedness in every classroom interaction.
School leaders can model norms of respect and empathy in engaging with staff, students and families and promote identity-safe partnerships and schoolwide activities.
District leaders can leverage central office staff to support outreach to families, do home visits, collect and analyze belonging data from student surveys and use federal stimulus money for teacher professional development focused on belonging, and partner with community-based organizations who work with Latino students.
Making sure students feel like they belong may seem obvious. And many schools are doing great work to prioritize belonging. But there’s also a general sense that schools should be focusing mainly on academics, especially as we recover from pandemic-related school closures and lost learning time. But that’s not enough; kids will not be able to learn if they don’t feel safe, supported and connected.
This shouldn’t just be something we care about only during Hispanic Heritage Month, but a focus on belonging needs to become the focus of schools. Students, families and educators are under tremendous stress from increasing COVID infections in young people, raging debates about masks and vaccines, and ongoing economic insecurity. For many, this is a breaking point. We must re-center schools around belonging because it is the way we’ll collectively make it through this, not just for Hispanic Heritage Month, or Black History Month, or back-to-school but for the long haul. Este es el momento, únete a mi.