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Through the eyes of our students: Hispanic high schooler talks learning to self-advocate

Helen Gaitan, a rising senior at Sanderson High School in Raleigh, remembers the struggle of her first days of school well. A daughter of El Salvadorian parents who fled the country’s civil war, Gaitan grew up only speaking Spanish.

“I was really really scared, like I cried the first day, because I couldn’t understand what these people were saying to me,” Gaitan said. 

With the support of her ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, Gaitan began to learn how to navigate school and how race showed up in that navigation. As EducationNC unpacks “E(race)ing Inequities: The State of Racial Equity in North Carolina Public Schools,” a new report from the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED), Gaitan’s story is the first of three video installments that highlight stories of high school students of color. Watch her story below.

Gaitan said she remembers her ESL teacher telling her to make sure she gets placed in an AIG (academically and intellectually gifted) class in third grade. The CREED report finds students of color in North Carolina are significantly underrepresented in AIG placement. In 2016-17, 14.7% of the student population in North Carolina was Hispanic but only 9.4% of students in AP courses were Hispanic.

By middle school, Gaitan had learned to advocate for herself and her education, asking teachers to place her in more challenging classes that were often filled with white peers. Both Honors and Advanced Placement courses also lack proportional representation for non-Asian students of color, according to the CREED report.

Gaitan said her ESL teacher made a big difference for her ability to self-advocate, which she still uses in high school. Research has shown racial/ethnic match between a student and teacher matters. In 2016-17, the proportion of students that were Hispanic was over seven times the proportion of teachers that were Hispanic.

“I feel like teacher match is super important because if a teacher doesn’t understand a student’s background or culture, then they will have issues doing the best for that student,” Gaitan said. 


Editor’s note: James Ford is on contract with the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research from 2017-2020 while he leads this statewide study of equity in our schools. Center staff is supporting Ford’s leadership of the study, has conducted an independent verification of the data, and has edited the reports.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.