Monday, November 5, 2012

ALMas: The Pitch to OLAS Wednesday

Here's the pitch.

First I’d like to say thank you to Melissa, Darcy, and Christian for allowing me today to talk to all of you about an exciting idea—at least I think it’s an exciting idea.  And thank you all for coming today.  To those of you who don’t know me, my name is Marvin Espinoza.  You may have received an e-mail from me over the summer, haha.  All the same, it’s really heartwarming to have you all here, and I hope you enjoy the next few minutes.

Now I’d like to share with you a little story about myself.

Both of my parents are immigrants from Nicaragua.  They came to this country as 22 year-olds with nothing to their name.  Just dreams for better lives.  And when I was born, their dreams changed.  They wanted a better life for me.

But I was lucky.  Mom and pops were both educated and motivated individuals.  My papa graduated from Minnesota State after getting his GED.  My mama attended engineering school up until her third year when she had to drop out to take care of her family in Nicaragua.  So when I was old enough, my mother recognized I had to go to school—but she had no idea how or where to enroll me.  She knew little English and knew the state of Minnesota—where we lived at the time—even less.  But one day as she was walking around the streets of Mankato, MN looking for a school to drop this kid into, she stopped a random gentleman on the street and asked in her broken English, “Where can I go to enroll my son in school?”

The gentleman oddly enough gave her specific instructions to follow.  Little did she know that what came next may have dramatically decided the trajectory of my life.  She followed the directions to St. Peter and Paul’s Church, a private very expensive catholic school.  So when she sat down with the principal, she found out she clearly couldn’t afford the school’s tuition.  You know, she thought it was a public school! But the principal told her to bring in our family’s income statements—and the school lovingly took me in.  I received a high-class education for pre-k, kindergarten, and 1st grade that was second to none.  My mother even learned what types of activities she was supposed to engage me in: reading, writing, summarizing, and comprehending books.

Then we moved back CA where I temporarily attended second and third grade in a Hispanic ghetto.  And one moment, my father told me, he realized I had picked up the vernacular of the neighborhood, the slang, the uneducated “Mexican” accent—and after a gang fight right outside of our apartment, we left.  The other children weren’t as lucky.  But even during this time, my mother made me read novels, The Hardy Boys, and made me summarize the text to her all the time.  Testing and developing my reading comprehension consistently and frequently.

Then we moved to Monterey Park, a predominantly Asian community that highly valued education—my friends were talented, motivated, educated, and driven to succeed.  And I attended a public school that was in the top 5% in the nation, and my teachers stayed after school with me for tutorials in math when I didn’t perform well.  Then when I moved to Texas in 2008, my teachers believed I could do something and recommended me to the University of Chicago.  And here I am now, like all of you! 

And now you ask, why am I telling you this?

Because—and I’m not sure of all your own individual histories—but if they are anything like mine, or you know a friend’s story like mine, you know being a child of a latino immigrant family with nothing, could’ve begun and ended very differently.  But I was lucky.

And here I am with all of you, of the same skin color, of the same type of hair, and of the same ethnicity:  Latino.

Here we are.  Educated.  Motivated.  Intelligent (well, I’m not sure I am anymore—I used to think so!).  Headed towards a future of accomplishment and raising intelligent and well-educated children that will follow suit.  You and I have talents above the average.  Abilities above the average.  Vocabularies and ambitions above the average.

We even have people in our lives that believed and still believe that we are above the average.  Who have pushed us beyond.  Challenged us to think critically.  Strategically.  Creatively.  People who have asked us the complex questions growing up that hardwired our brains to perform above the average.

But now here I am asking to you use those talents within you and perform above the average for our community.  Because we face a problem.  A BIG one.


The children of our community, our Latino youngsters, are dropping out of high school at higher rates than any other minority in the United States, and on average they lag behind their white peers academically at all grade levels k-12, especially children from immigrant parents.

They are being born to homes that unfortunately will most likely lead them on a path to intergenerational poverty.

Young Hispanic children from immigrant families tend to be born to homes:
1.      that are poor
2.      with parents of very little formal education
3.      that are linguistically isolated (only Spanish-speaking)
4.      that don’t enroll their children into pre-k programs

However, the two most insidious obstacles facing our children’s homes are their POVERTY and LINGUISTIC ISOLATION.


In a study by Hart and Risley, these two researchers on childhood development attached microphones to 42 parents of three different socioeconomic levels—Professional, Working-Class, and Poor (Welfare receiving)—and monitored how frequently they engaged their children, talked with their children, counted the number of words and different words their children were exposed to—and they figured out the relationship between language exposure, child development, and cognitive ability.

[Explain data]

At 12 months, an average child from the professional family was cumulatively exposed to 11 million words.  At the same age, a child from a poor family was exposed to only 3 million.  A gap of 8 million words at the first year of life.  Then at 48 months, an average child from a professional family had been cumulatively exposed to 45 million words.  A poor child, 12 million.  A gap that began at 8 million words grew 300% to 32 million.  And this gap only continues to grow as time progresses.  And sensibly enough, Hart and Risley found a strong relationship between language exposure and cognitive ability.

This is the result of two factors that are different in these two households.  Professional parents talked more frequently with their children and used more advanced vocabularies.  They asked them questions like WHY and HOW, forcing their kids to think critically and expand their vocabularies at faster rates and understand relationships between objects, ideas, and situations better than their poor peers.  Put simply, professional families prepared their children for the advanced vocabularies and the analytical thinking that comes with more advanced vocabularies to understand college textbooks and become prepared for a work-force that requires technically and technologically capable individuals. 

The poor children?  They don’t receive this exposure.  Our Latino children don’t receive this exposure.  And they end up like their parents: in poverty, uneducated, and stuck.  Stuck because they didn’t develop the cognitive skills to succeed in school. This is what the research suggests consistently. 

But they don’t even just face a poverty barrier to success; they face a language barrier.  In fact, 30% of immigrant Latino children are not considered English proficient, when English proficiency is a key determinant of academic success!


But we can do something.  We can be resources for these children between the ages 0 and 8 when they are most cognitively malleable, when their brains are just absorbing information and experience like a sponge absorbing water in a desert.  We can give them the access to the educational capital lacking in their homes and communities: educated people that stimulate their minds and grow their vocabularies! 

We can give them access to us.  We can be their educational capital.

In an afterschool setting, we can expose them to and make them absorb:
•      Our rich vocabularies to develop theirs
•      Our inquisitive natures to develop theirs
–     Asking them the WHY’s and the HOW’s like the professional parents by reading with them, playing with them, and engaging their minds
•      Extra enrichment in literacy in whichever language they are most comfortable in because if we can develop a kid’s language and thinking in Spanish, they easily translate that to English
•      A culture of learning, of curiosity that they can bring to the classroom and ask their teachers in the future

This is ALMas’ purpose.  The reason why I’m speaking to you today.  This student organization’s sole purpose will be to immerse pre-k Latino children in educationally and linguistically rich environments to challenge and grow their minds and capabilities.

Because studies on early childhood education are unanimous in their findings:  if we start early, we can help close these education gaps.  After the formative years, when the mind of the child is malleable and just absorbing up information, after this window of opportunity closes, it becomes significantly more difficult to pull them up and help them succeed.

I don’t promise that we’ll close the gap.  I can’t do that.  What I can promise is that we’ll start here, and we’ll work ourselves up to kindergarten, to first-grade, and maybe even further to create a “conveyer belt” of intellectual exposure and development so we can constantly stimulate these children’s minds with educational capital every step of their educational life.

I’m prepared to work as hard as I need to.  And I don’t expect you to change your entire schedule for me.  But I am asking you to join me in this journey to level the playing field a bit for Latino children, our children.  The only thing you’ll need is your heart and construction cap.  Because we’re in a construction zone right now, and things can get tough when we’re trying to build opportunity.  But the heart—it provides the diligence we need to keep going.

Para ayudarles lograr mas.

To help them achieve more. 

Because I see myself in these Latino children.  And because I see my parents in theirs as well, just trying to do what’s best for their child so that child can do better than themselves—but not knowing how.  My life could’ve gone the opposite way.

If it weren't for my mother who made me to read when I was younger, who read to me every night, who ensured my English proficiency was high; if it weren't for the quality pre-k and kindergarten in Minnesota that exposed my brain to educational capital; if it weren't the lucky accidents in my life like that gentleman who directed my mother and being born to educated immigrants; if it weren't for teachers who took time afterschool until 4pm to help me go over math problems when I almost failed---I would never have been able to attend the University of Chicago, one of the nation's premier universities.

I want to share some of this luck, to be honest.  These children deserve better from us.  They deserve to know they can do notwhat we've been able to do.  No, that’s too easy. 

They deserve to know they can do better.

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