Lucrecia Magee, a bilingual kindergarten teacher in Meriden, spends her 35-minute commute talking to parents. She doesn’t wait until their children do something amazing or alarming. She calls just to talk about a letter sound they learned or a new sight word they recognized.
Last spring, when she came up with the idea of holding parents’ workshops, she didn’t have to send an email blast or letter. “We’re always talking, so it was just, ‘I’m doing a workshop. Love to see you. What night works for you?’”
Even in mid-pandemic, two-thirds of the parents attended. (The meetings were outside.)
Magee sees advocacy as inseparable from her work as a bilingual teacher in Meriden, where more than half of the school district’s students are Latino. As an immigrant herself – she grew up in Argentina, where she taught English in her 20s – she feels a strong connection to her students’ parents, almost all of whom came here from Latin America and struggle with English.
“It’s very emotional for me to talk about why I’m a teacher. I feel I’m part of the family. The parents don’t know the language. Sometimes I’m the only advocate they have. To me, it’s not a job. It’s an honor.”
Magee despairs about the graduation rate for Latinos in Meriden, which is below the state average, and it is her personal mission to try to raise it. That was one reason for the workshops. Five of her students missed as many as 50 days last year, and she showed the parents data connecting chronic absenteeism now to low performance later on.
The parents responded with a catalogue of health crises and uncooperative work schedules – they are landscapers, painters, construction workers – that kept them from getting their children to the bus. Magee said to keep her informed so she could help them.
“Imagine if she had been there every day,” she said of one child. “That tells her how much you value education. If you keep her home, she gets the message it’s not important.”
Despite the ordeal of the pandemic, Magee’s class performed well. Unlike most districts, Meriden kept its schools open for the duration of the 2020-21 school year. To facilitate social distancing, administrators cut her class to 14 students, from the normal size of 20, which created more time for one-on-one instruction.
Other precautions proved more onerous. “The masks were the worst,” she said. “You need your students to see your mouth and how you position your mouth,” to teach letter sounds. And who could teach a 5-year-old to hold a pencil and write from behind a plexiglass shield? “That didn’t last long,” she said.
Still, Magee was elated by their progress. One girl was reading at a second grade level. “They’re so smart. They make me so proud,” she said.
“They arrive knowing no sounds, no letters, anything, and you get them out of kindergarten and they can read and talk in both languages. They have so many dreams. They want to be veterinarians and teachers and scientists.”
“I wonder when that disappears.”
It is a giant question and she wants more people to recognize its urgency. She sees pieces of the answer everywhere – for example, in a shortage of role models. Even in Meriden, which is ahead of the rest of Connecticut, few teachers and administrators are Latino. It’s a circular problem: “Latino kids drop out in higher rates than any other students. Those kids never get to college, they don’t get to represent us in positions where they can make a difference. Children don’t see successful people who look like them and they start to feel they don’t have value and they fall behind,” she said.
Research shows that children read English more proficiently if they first develop strong skills in their home language. Meriden follows what is known as a transitional bilingual model, in which kindergarteners learn to read in Spanish, then switch to English in first grade. Magee has been advocating for a dual-language model, in which Spanish- and English-speakers learn in both languages through 12th grade, all emerging bilingual. It is far more expensive, and less commonly used, but research shows it fosters stronger academic achievement in both groups. In Magee’s view, it also helps Spanish speakers feel that their culture is valued.
“Our district recognizes bilingualism as an asset, and understands the importance of communicating to students that their cultures are valued,” she said. “We are all focused on growing and learning, and always trying to do better by our students.”
She understands well that change takes time, but she is doing what she can to hasten it. She is studying for her second master’s degree – this one in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages – because “I need to get better in what I do so I can raise awareness.” And she is planning more parents’ workshops.
“When you ask parents about dreams for their child, the first thing they say is, ‘Do better than me, have an education, go to a college or university,’’ she said. “They don’t know that they can do so much. They need information. They need somebody to be that connection."
She explains that Latinos, as the majority in the Meriden district, have more power than they realize. "I tell them 56 percent is more than half. So we need to keep trying."