Vol. 6. No. 3 — December 2002
Puerto Rican Students in U.S. Schools
Sonia Nieto (Ed.) (2000)
Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
34.50 U.S. Also available in cloth, $79.95 U.S.
This book edited by Sonia Nieto describes the failure of the U.S. educational system to adequately educate a minority group, in this case, Puerto Ricans.
The authors present insights into the situation of Puerto Rican students in the United States educational system. The purpose of the book is to examine and evaluate the reasons for relatively poor academic performance of Puerto Ricans in light of the unique relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. The chapter authors are mainly Puerto Ricans themselves, and therefore, are able to speak from both experience and observation. The book is divided into five sections, each containing scholarly chapters either introduced by or interspersed with personal reflections written by Puerto Ricans between the ages of 15 and 50.
The three contributions to Part I stress the problems associated with frequent movement within the United States and back and forth between Puerto Rico and the mainland. Apart from the obvious problems these migrations pose to schooling, they create significant dislocation in many students. This section of the book provides an overview of the historical and sociopolitical context that Puerto Ricans find themselves in as a result of their distinctive history as a colonial possession–first of Spain and then of the United States. This section is introduced by a poem written about one student’s memories of trying to fit in to the American school environment. The first chapter traces the history and political activities of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and the second looks at what it is like when Puerto Ricans return to Puerto Rico after living in the U.S.
The first chapter is highly informative for one who is unfamiliar with the relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States. The second chapter is very insightful, as it explains the difficulty students face as they change from one school system to the other, while also discussing the social and cultural issue of migrant reentry. Chapter three is introduced by a narrative written by a high school student who has moved from school to school her whole life–each time having to adjust to the prejudices of different groups. Sometimes she was singled out for being Puerto Rican, other times for looking too “gringa” in a mixed-race school. Many of her problems arose from the fact that very little intervention was done on her behalf by the teachers or administrators in her schools. The essay provides a touching lead-in to the chapter on educational leadership, which describes the personal experiences of an advocate for Puerto Ricans who has been on the “front lines” in New York. [-1-]
Part II addresses identity from the angles of culture, race, language and gender. It is introduced by a narrative describing the importance of a strong sense of self to succeed in school. In chapter four, the author uses a case study to illustrate the notion of “imagined community.” The “imagined community” is used to discuss the racialized construction and clash of differentially positioned groups in a northeastern school district. The author compares three imagined communities within “Mill City” (a pseudonym): one of white conservatives, one of Puerto Rican/Latinos and one constructed through intercultural and interracial alliances of whites, Puerto Rican/Latinos and other people of color. This comparison reveals the cultural and power relations, as well as the politics of Puerto Ricans’ position in U.S. schools.
Chapter five describes a small study done to link language and Puerto Rican identity development. This is a particularly interesting chapter for language teachers seeking to understand the relationship of language and identity among Latinos in the U.S.–especially those who have an interest in the role of bilingualism and biculturalism. The narrative that follows describes the experience of a potentially gifted student who, by choosing to stay on the margins of the white-dominated classrooms in which he was educated, was never cultivated. Cultural marginalization made his abilities go unnoticed.
The next two chapters in this section describe the role of gender in the education of Puerto Rican students. The first is a series of narratives documenting the educational successes of ten young Puerto Rican women. This is a qualitative study that provides a good example of an ethnographic approach. The second chapter looks at the role of mothers and grandmothers in promoting school success. It looks at four families in order to explore the mothers’ socialization strategies related to their children’s academic achievement and the mothers’ involvement in schools. Specifically, the study looked at the mothers’ monitoring, communication, motivation and protection strategies as strengths within the Puerto Rican families.
Part III of the book looks into social activism, community involvement and political implications. It opens with the description of an elementary school that provided a seemingly ideal environment for its students. It shows how social activism is realized in school activities and its impact upon students’ lives. Chapters eight and nine both discuss Puerto Rican/Latino activism and educational reform in New York City. Educational and social groups (the Puerto Rican/Latino Education Roundtable and the Puerto Rican Association of Community Affairs) and the approach they take focus more on the political issues than educational theory and are very specific to the situation in New York City. Due to this specificity, the actions taken may not be fungible to other situations. In addition, whether the recommendations suggested meet the needs of Puerto Rican students is debatable. It can be argued that directing energies toward developing cultures of learning, as opposed to cultures of identity, will provide a more certain route to empowerment in the open, competitive, and capitalist economy of the United States, than do the political actions suggested by the authors of this book.
Part IV includes reflective essays as well as poems and discusses classroom-based studies. The first narrative is a poem that highlights how often it is wrongly assumed that Puerto Ricans are unintelligent. The following chapter discusses the importance of social action projects for preparing preservice teachers in New York City to more effectively serve the more than one million Puerto Ricans who live there. The activities they used included university projects and projects with children. The programs described are definitely useful to be included in all preservice curricula–with a focus on the specific populations of the region.
The next narrative, entitled “Teachers Don’t Care,” is an interesting contrast to the chapters that follow. The 14-year-old student presents his feelings of helplessness that come as a result of non-responsiveness and academic punishment by his teacher. The chapter that follows describes an alternative high school that not only promotes bilingual/biculturalism, but also provides students with decision-making powers that allowed for a student strike. The strike resulted in modification of school policy and teaching behaviors. [-2-]
The final narrative describes one student’s positive experiences with good teachers. It is interesting that she concludes her narrative to discuss the fact that she didn’t have a Puerto Rican teacher–and therefore, a role model–until she was in her forties. The last chapter of this section advocates the active engagement of students and teachers in research within their own communities. This would result in a change in the representations of their communities such that they would highlight the strengths and resources of the residents. The author shares two example case studies: the first was with bilingual teachers learning about cultural resources in the communities where they teach; and the second was an ethnographic project with middle school students. While the cases were interesting, some readers may prefer to see the outline of the projects first and then the descriptions of their outcomes.
The concluding section of the book, “Directions for the Future,” reiterates the importance of addressing this section of the population and makes suggestions for future research. The areas for further research are actually those that are most linked with the research interests of bilingual education and ESL researchers. They focus on language and power (especially as relates to bilingual education), colonialism & educational opportunity, and school reform.
On the whole, this book presents important information about a large minority population in the U.S.–especially considering that half of ethnic Puerto Ricans live in the United States. At the same time, the book has implications for classroom practice and social action for bilingual educators as well. The focus is on Puerto Ricans, but the overall tone and the specific subjects of the essays will be insightful to any scholar of multicultural education.
Editor’s note: For more information, see: https://www.erlbaum.com/shop/tek9.asp?pg=products&specific=0-8058-2765-X
Texas A&M University, College of Education
Dept. of Teaching, Learning, and Culture
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