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Hispanic families face higher hurdles at school

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It's tough being a teacher -- the unrealistic expectations, the high stakes, the low pay and the lack of respect for the profession. But, trust me, it's even harder being a teacher of color in a profession that is 80 percent non-Hispanic white nationally, and over 90 percent in most school districts outside of major urban centers.

It's not as though white teachers aren't professional, nice or supportive. It's more that, outside of the classroom, they often forget that not everyone in the room is white, and they let fly how they really feel about their students of color.

Over the years, I've heard some teachers talk serious trash about their students -- including cracks about who would land in jail or end up a lawn maintenance laborer. But even teachers who wouldn't dare let something so crass about a student leave their lips falter when it comes to complaining about parents.

Now, I'll be the first person to point out that teachers deal with flighty, rude, demanding and overly involved parents, as well as uncooperative and totally absent mothers and fathers.

But even though parents of all races and ethnicities fall short of the optimal amount of engagement with the school community, it always seems like teachers get extra irked when Hispanic students' parents fall short.

Unfortunately, what often looks like parental disengagement is actually family hardship.

"Most working low-income [Hispanic] parents have jobs with characteristics that can present challenges to raising children, such as low monthly earnings, nonstandard work schedules (i.e., work schedules outside of daytime hours during Monday through Friday), and limited access to employer-sponsored health insurance," according to a new report from the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families. "This is true across race, Hispanic ethnicity, and nativity status."

The authors, Elizabeth Wildsmith, María A. Ramos-Olazagasti and Marta Alvira-Hammond, go on to say that "job characteristics, such as number of hours worked, work schedules, commute time, and paid time off, can shape the amount of time and energy parents are able to invest in their children. For example, parents who work long or nonstandard schedules may spend less time with their children and have difficulties establishing and maintaining family routines."

(And the commute time mentioned above doesn't even take into account the phenomenon of immigrant and Latino families fleeing urban crime and poor schools for suburbs where there are often few public transportation options to get to and from work. But anyone who spends much time in outer-ring suburbs of major metropolitan areas can attest that despite rain, snow or sub-zero temperatures, Hispanic men and women can be seen riding bikes to work on major county roads that were not meant for bicycle traffic.)

The authors continue, "Research finds that nonstandard work schedules may reduce time spent with children and closeness between parent and child. Low wages, unstable jobs and variable or nonstandard work schedules can increase stress and take a toll on parental psychological well-being, increasing family conflict and harsh parenting."

I once had a heart-wrenching conversation with a Latina mom who worked as the night custodian at one of the schools where I taught. Her daughter was struggling in fourth grade, complaining of stomachaches and exhibiting signs of anxiety. Mom was deeply sad and worried that she wasn't available at night to go over homework or read bedtime stories because she was out working to ensure everyone at home was fed.

She wasn't alone. Among low-income Hispanic parents, nearly one-third of foreign-born fathers and one-quarter of U.S.-born fathers had three or more job stressors like irregular work hours, a long or difficult commute or multiple jobs. Roughly one-quarter of low-income Hispanic mothers (U.S.- and foreign-born) had three or more stressors. And yes, as the number of work stressors increases, so does the likelihood of adverse outcomes for the kids.

Policy fixes include incentives for more employers to provide full-time jobs and more flexible and reliable work hours. And for communities to offer more access to affordable, high-quality child care, with more weekend and evening coverage. Also, expanded access to non-employer health insurance or health care services and a transportation infrastructure that makes it possible for families to get to jobs, to midday or evening parent-teacher conferences, and to health services when needed.

Empathy, too, will help.

Many times teachers get very frustrated when our young students come to school lacking focus for their learning. But, too often, people jump to conclusions without taking the difficult work lives of low-income parents and families into account.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.