Collaborating with a growing Hispanic population is the best way for school districts to improve

bilingual written out in blocks

FIU assistant professor of bilingual education Ryan Pontier isn’t waiting for a seat at the table to find ways to empower bilingual students — he’s building his own table.

With funding from the Spencer Foundation, he brought together researchers and stakeholders including students, parents, teachers and administrators from emerging Hispanic-serving school districts (eHSSDs) in a virtual conference to find better, more effective ways to support bilingual students.

The virtual two-day Inaugural Conference on Emerging Hispanic-Serving School Districts featured student, parent, teacher and administrator panels each followed by charlas — or more intimate discussions — in Zoom breakout rooms where participants shared feedback and ideas. Additional panel discussions and presentations covered healthcare, education and immigration law, and mental health. At the end of the conference, participants came together to co-create a research agenda in support of emerging Hispanic-serving school districts.

The conference intentionally focused on the experiences and strengths of those from eHSSDs. 

“So much of the feedback from participants was about how rarely they all get to be in the same space,” Pontier said. “We brought together people who can help people who need help — they are the experts in the issues they’re experiencing.”

Emerging Hispanic-serving school districts are those with an enrollment of 15 to 24.9 percent Hispanic/Latinx students. According to the most recent U.S. Department of Education data, there are 1,462 eHSSDs. As a Hispanic Serving Institution in one of the most diverse regions of the United States, FIU is uniquely positioned to help co-create a research agenda focused on impact and tailored to school districts trying to improve how they serve their growing Hispanic population.

Two themes emerged from the conference discussions and are providing the framework for the research agendas — Familia y Comunidad (family and community) and resilience.

“Almost everyone who spoke talked about the strengths of being a community. Their belief in participation, in coming together and being able to support one another,” Pontier said. “And the idea of resilience that so many students and families have. Some are fleeing political oppression or abuse and neglect. Many don’t speak English or Spanish and might speak an indigenous language and don’t have support or don’t know how to navigate the educational system.”

For Pontier, these themes are a starting point for policy recommendations and next steps that will come at the end of the summer. The goal is to provide broad guidelines for effecting change that can then be tailored to the needs of specific districts to leverage partnerships and develop professional development opportunities as needed.

Pontier is an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at FIU. He researches teacher instructional practices — for teachers in the classroom and students who are training to become teachers. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Miami.

Read more about how Pontier’s work in transforming bilingual education.