Today in Graduating Latino, we head to Trotwood—a community that’s trying to get on its feet after years of losing jobs and industry. At Trotwood-Madison High School, teachers are scrambling to help struggling students. But in this case, the Latino population is very small, just over one percent.
One Spanish teacher, Alicia Pagan is trying to bridge the gaps between Latino and Black students—while dealing with even bigger problems.
“When I come in the classroom at the beginning of the year I say, Hola! Me llamo Elba Alicia Lowrance Lopez Pagan Acevedo Martinez Gonzalez Rodriguez,” Pagan says. She’s performative and colorful, with one braid hanging to the side. “After the kids pick the jaw up off the floor, I say, go home and go ask your parents your song of your heritage, ‘cause that’s mine.”
Pagan is on a mission to get her mostly-Black classes totally engaged with Latino culture—and she says sometimes it’s hardest to get Latino kids to speak up.
“I can see that they know the answer but they won’t answer,” she says. They don’t want to look like know-it-alls, or in some cases, they’re embarrassed if they actually don’t know much Spanish. But in general, “the kinds of things that they need are the same kinds of things that any other student who would be coming from a disadvantaged situation, whether they’re an English speaker or not.”
And many of her students are coming from disadvantaged situations: 85 percent of the students in this district live in poverty, according to numbers from the state.
“Most of those kids, they just don’t think they can do it,” says Principal David White.
Around 15 percent of each class doesn’t make it to graduation in time. Meanwhile, the state is investigating the district for underperforming on state report cards.
Making it to graduation takes a lot of support, which some students do have—like seventeen-year-old senior Marcus Jordan. He’s right in the middle of it all: his dad is Black, his mom’s from Puerto Rico. Some of the kids make fun of him, calling him Obama because he’s so proper. But he’s on his own track:
“Since I was around six years old, I always just say I want to be a dentist, ‘cause I always enjoy going to the dentist’s office,” he says.
Marcus is the kind of guy who helps people; other students come to him with their problems.
“It could be relationships, family problems, or just their stress level with school. Anything that really can help someone, I really like to do,” he says.
He’s gotten into a few colleges already—his mom Sonia Jordan says they’re just trying to figure out money. Marcus’s older brother got a football scholarship.
“If you’re an athlete, you get all the assistance that you need from whatever college is recruiting you,” she says.
But for a kid like Marcus, who’s done well but isn’t a star football player or a Rhodes scholar, there’s not as much on offer.
Still, Sonia Jordan says it’s the other kids she worries about—the ones who won’t go to college. Look around Trotwood, she says.
“Everything is closed. It’s nothing to do, nothing you can turn to,” she says. It’s been hard for Marcus to find so much as a part-time job.
Spanish teacher Alicia Pagan says high school kids’ lives in Trotwood can be chaotic, and so can her classroom.
“It definitely keeps you running all day,” Pagan says. Short classes and a full load of standardized tests don’t help the matter.
Pagan’s room is decorated all over with butterflies, an important spiritual symbol in Mexico.
“If it takes you tap-dancing, or wearing butterflies... I have my butterfly wings that I wear to class sometimes. Whatever it takes, I need them to know that this is important, and here’s why it’s connected to you,” she says.
And then there’s the lack of resources in the school: she’d like to have computers in her classroom, but they can’t afford that. She lets students take out their smartphones to look things up during class.
Marcus Jordan agrees: money is a problem. He once scored a donation of cow hearts from a professor he met at a science fair. His class is dissecting them—and he’s really excited about it.
“If we had the resources and we could get more things like that, we can broaden kids minds to something more than just basic jobs, you can go out and be astronaut, doctor, anything,” he says. “I feel like we’re so limited that we don’t know how to think outside the box.”
Trotwood Madison had a school levy voted down in 2011, and hasn’t tried again since.
Graduating Latino is WYSO's series on education for Latinos in the Miami Valley, produced in partnership with Think TV. It's part of the public media initiative American Graduate, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.