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Before the pandemic hit our Latino community, we were making slow but steady progress in closing the equity gaps that prevent Latino students from truly thriving in our education system and workforce.  

For decades, courageous Latinos pushed hard to get national, state and district leaders to prioritize the education of Latino students, and it was paying off. Between 1995 and 2018, the percentage of Latinos with a high school diploma rose from 53 percent to 72 percent. And between 1976 and 2017, the Latino proportion of all students enrolled in college rose from 4 to 19 percent.  

Unfortunately, the pandemic has set us back several years. A viral photo of two young Latinas sitting outside a Taco Bell in California so they could access Wi-Fi to do their homework crystalized a national problem: Too many students do not have access to the tools they need to participate in distance learning. 

Related: Survey reveals stark rich-poor divide in how U.S. children were taught remotely during the spring school closures  

Overcoming the digital divide is just one of the many challenges Latino students — who make up 25 percent of all schoolchildren now and will be more than a third of that population by 2050 — are facing. In the last year, they lost loved ones and watched family finances dwindle; some even became homeless as the pandemic ravaged Latino communities across the country. 

As a result, Latino math and reading scores declined, as did Latino enrollment rates at community colleges. And thousands of English language learners grew further behind. 

That’s why state and school district recovery plans must equitably and appropriately address the needs of Latino students. The infusion of $122 billion dollars in federal funds into our education system via the American Rescue Plan is historic, and rightfully so, but we know that this one-time funding could easily be spent without making a real dent in disparities if it is not targeted for students of color, especially Latino students. 

Here’s how school districts can ensure they spend that money effectively. 

First, school leaders must meaningfully engage with students and parents — and truly incorporate their voices in the recovery plans they develop. This work could include parent surveys as well as interviews and town halls to elicit Latino parents’ perspectives.  

Second, school leaders should accelerate learning — not just remediation — for students with unfinished learning by investing in high-dose tutoring and summer enrichment programs, mental health services and other research-based approaches proven to break down barriers and improve learning opportunities for Latinos. Those include early college programs that allow students to earn college credits while still in high school.  

Above all, we cannot simply use this funding to “return to normal,” because the status quo wasn’t working for many Latino students, even after so many of us worked so hard to improve the education system to serve them better. 

We cannot simply use this funding to “return to normal,” because the status quo wasn’t working for many Latino students, even after so many of us worked so hard to improve the education system to serve them better. 

State and district leaders have difficult and important decisions to make about how to spend the billions of one-time dollars that will be at their disposal. The path forward should be clear: Equity must be at the center of all decisions.  

School districts must engage families, accelerate learning, invest in English learners, recruit Latino educators and innovate rather than uphold the status quo. The purpose behind all of this is to set up our students — all students — for success.  

Amanda Fernandez is CEO and founder of Latinos for Education; Dr. Feliza Ortiz-Licon is chief policy and advocacy officer. 

This story about Latino students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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