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At least 40,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students identify as Latino. Many were struggling before the coronavirus pandemic and studies show they have now fallen further behind in school. WFAE examines the obstacles facing Latino students and the resources available to help them succeed.

CMS program to prepare Latino teachers to become principals struggles to meet its goals

Mauricio Restrepo, assistant principal at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis, keeps an eye on students at dismissal.
Ann Doss Helms
Mauricio Restrepo, assistant principal at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis, keeps an eye on students at dismissal.

Esta historia está disponible en español en La Noticia.

Mauricio Restrepo was almost a perfect example of how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can increase Latino representation among its educators.

When he and his wife moved to Charlotte, he was in the restaurant business. A new neighbor told him about a job opening at Hornets Nest Elementary School.

“They needed an interpreter there, essentially, so it was a family-parent liaison,” he recalls.

Restrepo, whose parents came to the United States from Colombia, grew up speaking Spanish. He got the job, and after a year, he signed up for Teach Charlotte. That program, now defunct, was modeled on the national Teach For America program. It provided intensive summer training and classroom experience to get people without education degrees into teacher jobs.

Restrepo already had a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. After the training, he landed a job teaching Spanish at West Mecklenburg High School.

“I became department chair after my first year,” Restrepo said. 

Aiming for the principalship

In his third year, the CMS human resources department invited Latino teachers to hear a pitch for a partnership with UNC Charlotte. It was set up in 2017 specifically to get more Latino educators into principal jobs, offering the chance to earn a master’s degree and get on-the-job coaching.

“And I bit,” Restrepo said.

Jim Watson
UNC Charlotte
Jim Watson

Jim Watson, a UNC Charlotte associate professor who helped create that program, remembers Restrepo as “one of our bright students, probably one of the stronger ones.”

Restrepo completed the program and earned his master’s degree in school administration. And he’s working as an assistant principal but not for CMS. He’s at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

Watson says 16 Latino educators have entered the program and 10 have graduated. Only two of them are working in administration in CMS. Meanwhile, the district has seen the number of Latino principals decline. It had three when Restrepo was doing his fellowship. Now there’s only one, out of 180 schools.

Watson says that may not be the district’s fault.

“Once these people graduate, they’re a commodity that people would like to get,” Watson said. “You know, you’re a bilingual administrator with a master’s degree in school administration. People are picking you off.”

The challenge goes beyond CMS

The hurdles CMS has encountered in building a Latino principal pipeline illustrate bigger statewide issues. Gov. Roy Cooper has urged the state to rally to get more educators of color into public schools to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

In CMS, the 40,000 Latino students account for 28.5% of the student body. In about three dozen of the district’s 180 schools, Latino students outnumber their Black and white peers.

Restrepo spent the second year of his principal preparation program in one of those schools, Charlotte East Language Academy. He got on-the-job training from Carmen Concepción, the daughter of Mexican and Cuban immigrants. She was one of three Latina principals in CMS at the time and had just opened the dual-language school.

Restrepo says that it was a great experience and that he hoped to stay with CMS. But when he finished the program in May of 2019, CMS didn’t have any administrative jobs posted. A.L. Brown, the only high school in Kannapolis City Schools, did.

“I just couldn’t wait,” Restrepo said. “I couldn’t imagine myself going back in the classroom at that point with the drive I had and what I wanted to do.”

It’s not a big-city thing

In raw numbers, no district in North Carolina has as many Latino students as CMS. But in Kannapolis City Schools, with about 5,300 total students, Latinos account for 37% of the student body, outnumbering white and Black students.

As in CMS, Latinos are underrepresented as educators there, accounting for just under 3% of administrators and teachers.

But the focus on Spanish-speaking families is apparent as soon as you call A.L. Brown High, where the recorded message plays in English and Spanish.

Assistant Principal Mauricio Restrepo speaks to an English as a second language class at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.
Ann Doss Helms
Assistant Principal Mauricio Restrepo speaks to an English as a second language class at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

Come to the front office and two staffers speak Spanish. So does a counselor, a media coordinator, several teachers and, of course, Restrepo.

He says that’s important in communicating with families and with students who are new to speaking English. His background as a child of immigrants also informs his relationship with students. He says he tells them their job is to make a better life for their family, including the parents who brought them here.

“They left family, friends. They left their lives behind to give their children a better life,” he said. “And then when kids don’t act right, they don’t go to class, they’re not doing their work, you know, it’s a conversation I have to have with them: Your parents sacrificed everything to give you these things that they wouldn’t have.”

Leadership churn poses hurdles

So why is the program that got Restrepo ready for administration not doing more to fill the ranks of CMS leadership?

UNC Charlotte’s Watson says leadership churn is one issue. The program began under then-Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who is of Mexican descent. Wilcox left the job in August of 2019, for reasons he and the school board agreed not to disclose.

Jevelyn Bonner-Reed
Winston Salem-Forsyth Schools
Jevelyn Bonner-Reed

A few months later, Winston Salem-Forsyth Schools hired Jevelyn Bonner-Reed as its chief of human resources. She had been the point person in the CMS HR department for recruiting Latino educators.

“That was a major blow to us because we had developed such a good relationship with her,” Watson said.

Bonner-Reed’s new district hired Concepción, the CMS principal who had mentored Restrepo. She currently oversees several schools in Winston Salem-Forsyth. The district also hired one of the other graduates of the CMS Latino principal development program.

Watson says others have gone to a Charlotte charter school and a Christian education group. One opted to stay as a classroom teacher in CMS. A couple of graduates are in CMS administrative positions but haven’t become principals yet.

Watson acknowledges that so far “you can’t show statistically that we’ve made a difference.”

“I think we’ve got people in the pipeline that they didn’t have before,” he added. “And over the next few years, time will tell.”

Teacher shortage shrinks the principal pool

Another challenge is that the program is fishing in a small pond. Just over 2% of the teachers in CMS are Latino. That’s also true for North Carolina’s teachers. Gov. Cooper and a task force he appointed in 2019 have launched a quest to recruit more teachers of color into colleges of education and public-school classrooms, but they say the work will take years.

And COVID-19 has complicated everything. CMS is dealing with burnout, exhaustion and resignations among all teachers, just like districts everywhere. And Watson said recruiting meetings are harder now.

“The last couple of years we’ve had to do that virtually, and we just haven’t had the attendance like we normally do,” he said.

Watson expects to meet soon with Superintendent Earnest Winston, who took Wilcox’s place. He wants to make sure the principal program is part of the district’s strategy for helping Latino students recover from pandemic setbacks and succeed in school.

As for Restrepo, he’s still early in his career. He says it’s not out of the question that he might come back to CMS as a principal some day.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.