Julio Fuentes shares how Hispanic CREO is building a better future for our kids

Ahead of NECSN’s second annual Charter Awareness Day in Hartford, Julio Fuentes, President and CEO of Hispanic CREO, sat down with our team to share his experiences working on behalf of Hispanic children in Florida and across the country. Below are highlights from the interview, which you can listen to in full on The Grade, NECSN’s podcast.

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ON HISPANIC CREO

JOE SHAHEN, NECSN: So could you speak to us about your work, your background, what it is Hispanic CREO does?

JULIO FUENTES, HISPANIC CREO: Hispanic CREO is a national organization based of out the beautiful state of Florida – West Palm Beach Florida to be exact. We are the only national Hispanic organization in this work of education reform. We work with families, parents, the business community, faith-based community to educate them on this issue of the need for better quality schools and access to better quality schools so our work is really doing some grassroots organizing and grass-tops and at the same time work with legislators and educate them on the importance of supporting some of our ed reform efforts that are happening throughout the country.

ON WORKING WITH SPECIFIC ETHNIC GROUPS

JOSE ALFARO, NECSN: Because [Connecticut has] a large Latino population, can you speak a little bit to the importance of why it is that we need to be advocating for specific ethnic groups?

JULIO: I’m usually the buzz kill when I get invited to some of events to speak on this topic, especially around Hispanic Heritage Month when it's a lot of celebration and hoopla and margaritas flying around and all that good stuff – and of course I love my background, my culture, but when you peel that banana back and you start talking about 50% of our Hispanic children are not graduating high school, in some cases, some districts, you’re talking about 75% of our kids not graduating high school… And we’re the future of this country, right? The census numbers talk about Latinos, right now we are the majority minority and then when you start talking about these numbers on dropout rates, that's a serious issue that for our community. And not just our community, for all of America. If we’re the future of this country, an uneducated community doesn’t benefit anyone. So I always stress on that point that this is an issue for all children, but in our case we obviously focus on our Hispanic children because of the pure numbers that we see out there.

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ON PARENT ACTIVISM

JOSE: Because Hispanic CREO is an organization that focuses on parent advocacy, parent activism, and grassroots work, what are some things that you can advise parents, specifically Latino and Hispanic parents, on how to get involved and where they could start?

JULIO: First of all that's a little bit of a challenge, getting parents to really be active, to motivate them. They understand the importance of it, but to get them to the next level, to really come on out - write a letter or come on a podcast - that's the level that we're trying to really push our parents to get to. In Florida’s case right now the fear factor is alive there. We have a tax credit scholarship program that has almost ninety thousand kids in that program, that are on a scholarship program literally throughout the state. Almost 40% of those kids are Latino kids. Right now the teacher’s union has a lawsuit against this program trying to get rid of it, which means 90,000 kids would have to go back to the school that they originally had left to go to a better school. So you need to come out and fight for your child. 

In that case in Florida, they see that it’s a true threat, and we have what we call our “Ninja Moms.” It’s identifying those real special moms – I mean all moms are special – but that real special one that’s willing to go above and beyond the Call of Duty if you will, and just charge her to get out there, recruit, talk to other parents, because I strongly believe it’s who’s delivering that message. I could talk to the parents all day and the moms all day, but it’s just not the same. So identifying those “Ninja Moms” has been real crucial for us.

PROUDEST MOMENTS

JOSE: Can you tell me a little bit about your proudest moments or maybe a proud moment that Hispanic CREO has had, or you as the President of Hispanic CREO has had?

JULIO: That’s a bit of a tricky one because there’s been plenty of proud moments. But the general theme is that we get calls all the time and it starts with the story of ‘my child being bullied in school and enough is enough, I need help’ and the mom is usually crying… when we help them go through that process of getting that scholarship and a lot of times these are just phone calls, we never get to meet them, and whether I’m at an event, or literally they’ll pop into the office to thank me, that’s special. That’s special when you know that you’ve changed a life.

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DIVERSITY IN EDUCATION REFORM

JOSE: The Northeast Charter Schools Network prides itself on being a diverse organization with diverse leadership, specifically with leaders of color. Is this a national trend, and if not is there a sense of urgency and importance of diversity within education reform?

JULIO: Well, first, I applaud you folks for that diversity because it is so important and unfortunately we do not see enough of that. And it’s our fault, right? We take responsibility as an organization that we need to create leaders within this movement. We need some true leaders. We were talking about the ninja mom before, we’re talking about some true leaders in this ed reform movement that can go out and speak at events, that can be on podcasts, that can be on CNN Latino talking about this issue. There’s just not enough Latinos specifically in this fight that were at. 

I’m honored to receive that phone call to go speak wherever but there should be a slew of folks out there throughout this country. Again, touching on the numbers of Hispanics and the growth of our community, shame on us. And we’re working hard to change that. In Florida just to give you an example, two weeks ago we just announced our hundred Hispanic Leaders Academy, where we’ve already got 50 in the Central Florida area where we’re actually going to train them and empower them on how to become leaders, why is this a problem and how is that you can make change. And by the end of the year we will have a hundred leaders that will actually graduate at our Summit and we’ll go through a whole ceremonial piece. We’re hoping to duplicate this throughout the country because a hundred is a drop in the bucket. That’s our task and that’s what we’re doing in Florida. 

To hear more of the interview, visit The Grade podcast here.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW:

JOE: Jose and Mike, we’re here in Connecticut for Charter Awareness Day at the Capitol in Hartford. Tell us a little bit about what’s going to happen there?

JOSE: Charter Awareness Day is going to be a really exciting day. We have 24 charter schools in the state of Connecticut that are going to be at the Capitol. They are going to be displaying their diversity and showing the uniqueness of their models. We’ll have parents, advocates, and school leaders up at the State Capitol all very proud to show their work and just express how much charters have impacted their lives.

MIKE: This is our second annual Awareness Day and we’re very fortunate to have Julio Fuentes from Hispanic CREO in here from Florida. We’re really excited for him to bring a national perspective to school choice and what it means to families and communities that don't have enough educational options so we're really excited and it’s going to be a fantastic day.

JOE: Joining us now is Julio Fuentes, President and CEO of Hispanic CREO, that is the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. Julio, thank you for joining us!

JULIO: Thank you for having me!

JOE: So could you speak to us about your work, your background, what it is Hispanic CREO does?

JULIO: Hispanic CREO is a national organization based of out the beautiful state of Florida – West Palm Beach Florida to be exact. We are the only national Hispanic organization in this work of education reform. We work with families, parents, the business community, faith-based community to educate them on this issue of the need for better quality schools and access to better quality schools so our work is really doing some grassroots organizing and grass-tops and at the same time work with legislators and educate them on the importance of supporting some of our ed reform efforts that are happening throughout the country.

JOSE: That sounds absolutely amazing, thank you again so much for being here. I have a couple of quick questions: How do you feel like your national work can impact our work here in Connecticut?

JULIO: Education obviously is good for everyone if it's good and for the kids in Florida and Texas and California obviously it's going to good for the kids in Connecticut so this is definitely a national movement that's taking place, the school choice movement has grown leaps and bounds but without a doubt there is a lot more work that needs to happen and in this arena and Connecticut obviously is an important state for Latinos, don't know the exact numbers but I know there are Latinos in Connecticut so the more that we could help with any efforts that are happening here, that's what Hispanic CREO is all about.

JOSE: Amazing. And with that, because we have a large Latino population, can you speak a little bit to the importance of why it is that we need to be advocating for specific ethnic groups?

JULIO: I’m usually the buzz kill when I get invited to some of events to speak on this topic, especially around Hispanic Heritage Month when it's a lot of celebration and hoopla and margaritas flying around and all that good stuff – and of course I love my background, my culture, but when you peel that banana back and you start talking about 50% of our Hispanic children are not graduating high school, in some cases, some districts, you’re talking about 75% of our kids not graduating high school… And we’re the future of this country, right? The census numbers talk about Latinos, right now we are the majority minority and then when you start talking about these numbers on dropout rates, that's a serious issue that for our community. And not just our community, for all of America. If we’re the future of this country, an uneducated community doesn’t benefit anyone. So I always stress on that point that this is an issue for all children, but in our case we obviously focus on our Hispanic children because of the pure numbers that we see out there. 

JOSE: Definitely. So because Hispanic CREO is an organization that focuses on parent advocacy, parent activism, and grassroots work, what are some things that you can advise parents, specifically Latino and Hispanic parents, on how to get involved and where they could start?

JULIO: First of all that's a little bit of a challenge, getting parents to really be active, to motivate them. They understand the importance of it, but to get them to the next level, to really come on out - write a letter or come on a podcast - that's the level that we're trying to really push our parents to get to. In Florida’s case right now the fear factor is alive there. We have a tax credit scholarship program that has almost ninety thousand kids in that program, that are on a scholarship program literally throughout the State. Almost 40% of those kids are Latino kids. Right now the teacher’s union has a lawsuit against this program trying to get rid of it, which means 90,000 kids would have to go back to the school that they originally had left to go to a better school. So you need to come out and fight for your child. In that case in Florida, they see that it’s true threat, and we have what we call our “Ninja Moms.” It’s identifying those real special moms – I mean all moms are special – but that real special one that’s willing to go above and beyond the Call of Duty if you will, and just charge her to get out there, recruit, talk to other parents, because I strongly believe it’s who’s delivering that message. I could talk to the parents all day and the moms all day, but it’s just not the same. So identifying those “Ninja Moms” has been real crucial for us. 

JOSE: And we talk about this all the time in Connecticut as well, where we’re advocating on behalf of charters and on behalf of the parents that are in charters and their families, but oftentimes, we’re paid advocates and so while we do this work out of the need in our communities, legislators and other elected officials as well as decision makes usually react better to people coming directly from their constituents. So you’re absolutely right. Can you tell me a little bit about your proudest moments or maybe a proud moment that Hispanic CREO has had, or you as the President of Hispanic CREO has had? 

JULIO: That’s a bit of a tricky one because there’s been plenty of proud moments. But the general theme is that we get calls all the time and it starts with the story of ‘my child being bullied in school and enough is enough, I need help’ and the mom is usually crying… when we help them go through that process of getting that scholarship and a lot of times these are just phone calls, we never get to meet them, and whether I’m at an event, or literally they’ll pop into the office to thank me, that’s special. That’s special when you know that you’ve changed a life. 

JOSE: The Northeast Charter Schools Network prides itself on being a diverse organization with diverse leadership, specifically with leaders of color. Is this a national trend, and if not is there a sense of urgency and importance of diversity within education reform?

JULIO: Well first I applaud you folks for that diversity because it is so important and unfortunately we do not see enough of that. And it’s our fault, right? We take responsibility as an organization that we need to create leaders within this movement. We need some true leaders. We were talking about the ninja mom before, we’re talking about some true leaders in this ed reform movement that can go out and speak at events, that can be on podcasts, that can be on CNN Latino talking about this issue. There’s just not enough Latinos specifically in this fight that were at. I’m honored to receive that phone call to go speak wherever but there should be a slew of folks out there throughout this country. Again, touching on the numbers of Hispanics and the growth of our community, shame on us. And we’re working hard to change that. In Florida just to give you an example, two weeks ago we just announced our hundred Hispanic Leaders Academy, where we’ve already got 50 in the Central Florida area where we’re actually going to train them and empower them on how to become leaders, why is this a problem and how is that you can make change. And by the end of the year we will have a hundred leaders that will actually graduate at our Summit and we’ll go through a whole ceremonial piece. We’re hoping to duplicate this throughout the country because a hundred is a drop in the bucket. That’s out task and that’s what we’re doing in Florida.

JOSE: That sounds incredible. Anytime that we have parents that are being galvanized, that are being empowered, that are doing real grassroots work and using authentic movements and voices to empower folks, that’s always something that really generates a lot of trajectory, it helps the movement, it helps a lot of the work that we’re all doing. To see that you’re all doing something similar in Florida, it’s going to be really exciting to see what some of those outcomes are both in policy and in shifting culture and mindsets, because at the end of the day we’re not just empowering people but we’re shifting that cultural mindset of feeling powerless and hopeless and so when we’re able to shift that to become empowered and effect change, we’re changing generational lives as opposed to just giving them something do now.

JULIO: You just nailed it. That’s exactly what we’ve been talking about. I think for way too long we’ve used the word advocacy, which is important, we need advocacy, we need advocates, all that good stuff. But the key word there is power, how do we teach parents, business leaders, the faith based communities, our pastors out there, how do we teach them that arena of power, and what is true power and how to use it, how to be effective with that power that could grow within you. I’m really excited about this challenge that we’ve set for ourselves. Again, advocacy is great and we’re always going to need it, but we need to be talking in the arena of power.

JOSE: What would you say are some differences between different states that you are working in in terms of the needs of parents and their education? How do you see Latino parents defining their needs and necessitates versus other communities?

JULIO: For example, just to give the Florida/Arizona combination, a big issue in Arizona is the English Language Learners, the ELL kids, we have a big problem there. We really don’t have that big of a problem in Florida – we do – but really not that big as what it is in Arizona. So really finding that point of interest for that community and really focusing on that and of then course hopefully opening it up to other discussions and other arenas whether it be charters or homeschooling or whatever the case may be. But really identifying that key point. In Florida it’s access. Access to a quality education. We just don’t have enough quality seats. Which is another example of another way that we need to be talking about this movement. We talk about choice and opportunities, that’s great, I think we need to start concentrating on quality education and what that look like. What does quality education look like? And that might mean on thing to one person and something to the next person. But still that discussion of quality needs to be at the table. 

JOSE: Charter schools are community driven. What do you believe the community’s role in education should be, and how do you think that helps to close the achievement gap?

JULIO: In our world we look at this as the perfect storm. We were talking about grassroots organizing, grass-tops organizing, I think way too many times we focus from the top down. There’s a bunch of money that’s going into whatever State Capitol and hiring all these lobbyists and trying to really push a certain agenda, which is fine, you need that. But then what happens is if a bill is successful, then everybody is scrambling around, how to implement it, how do you educate the community of what was just passed, what does that mean to me? So we believe in that perfect storm where you need the faith based community – I truly believe the faith based community plays a big role in what we do – the business community, an uneducated workforce is no good for anybody right, so the business community needs to be engaged in this. In Florida we have a great relationship with the American Cancer Society, not that they take a position on anything that we’re working on, but obviously their reach is tremendous so they share a lot of our newsletter stuff and social media, they follow us and retweet stuff so it’s truly a community effort to really do something that’s meaningful for that community.

 

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Mike is the former Deputy Communications Director for Connecticut for the Northeast Charter Schools Network.
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Julio Fuentes shares how Hispanic CREO is building a better future for our kids
Julio Fuentes shares how Hispanic CREO is building a better future for our kids
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