By Natalie Gross
Latino Ed Beat
A Q&A With Outgoing Executive Director Alejandra Ceja
Alejandra Ceja has been the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics since 2013 — a position she’ll give up at noon on Jan. 19, the day before the presidential inauguration. I recently sat down with her at the U.S. Department of Education to talk about the state of Latino education, the Initiative’s first 25 years, and what we can expect from the Initiative under the next administration.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length.
What is the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics and why is it significant?
Our White House initiative was created in 1990 at a time when we had one of the highest dropout rates in the country for Hispanic students. It was at the urging of civil rights organizations that President George Bush signed the first executive order establishing our office. Our overall mission is to increase the educational outcomes and opportunities for Hispanic students. Since 1990, we’ve had a very strong bipartisan support, and our executive order has been renewed by every administration following.
Under President Obama, we have a cradle-to-career approach because we have a body of work that you can point to from 1990 forward that basically says it does us no good to just focus on one issue. If we really want to have an impact on the Hispanic community, we really have to focus from cradle to career on the educational needs of Hispanic students.
Under my leadership, I’ve been able to take this cradle-to-career approach and framework and really connect the community to the policy and to the outreach to really make it more meaningful. We’ve been able to point to the fact that this is the only federally funded White House initiative that is focused exclusively and unapologetically on the Hispanic community.
The Initiative celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. What were some of its biggest achievements during that time?
One of the things I’m really proud of is the work that we did around our anniversary to tell the story and reframe the narrative. Walking from 1990 when you talked about Hispanics as being dropouts and being in crisis to now, where you can talk about having one of the highest graduation rates in the country for students, and in particular what that means for Hispanic students. You’re seeing more Hispanic students enter college. You’re starting to see them graduate. That is the narrative we want to talk about.
During our 25-year anniversary, we launched a call to action for commitments…. and we were able to generate $335 million in commitments to action. That’s 150 commitments from the public and private sector that focused exclusively on helping address gaps — opportunity gaps for Hispanic students — (and) engaging parents.
I think that was a nice culmination of the 25-year history that we have because it is a shared responsibility. We have the federal government’s role. We have our state and local governments and their role. We have our parents, our educators, our stakeholders, our community partners and their role. It is a reflection of the country coming together and saying, “This is a growing demographic of students in our public schools.”
One of the other things we did is create a new online catalog of Bright Spots in Education. Who are the organizations across this country that you can point to and learn from? How can we share those best practices given that we know there’s an emerging migration pattern in the South of Hispanic growth? How do we use that information so that we don’t start from scratch?
What is the state of Latino education right now?
I think one of our greatest challenges is on early learning. We need to continue to invest in early learning when it comes to the Hispanic community. That is our baseline today, tomorrow and for the future. It is making sure that Hispanic kids have access to quality early learning programs. The president has invested over $4 billion in early learning, so we’ve been able to see the trends of participation in the Hispanic community go up.
I think (where) we are still challenged is making sure that you see more Hispanics getting to and through college. But we’re seeing an increase in Hispanic enrollment in college, especially in our two-year colleges. We’d like to make sure…that there’s more partnerships between two-years and four-year institutions so that our Hispanic students can navigate that process. Ideally, we’d like to see degree completion be the focus when we talk about education excellence — that we are completing, that we are graduating.
For me I think it’s more the opportunity gap and making sure that our Hispanic students have access to a quality education. That also starts with having more Hispanic teachers in the teaching profession. We’re only at 8 percent of teachers in this country that are Hispanic. Earlier this summer we convened deans of education from Hispanic-serving institutions, where we could talk about what we could do meaningfully to impact that pathway into the teaching profession for Hispanic students. We created a factsheet to kind of talk about — dispel the myths — of the teaching profession because a lot of the feedback we get from students is, “Well, I don’t want to be a teacher. It doesn’t pay.”
What are some of the biggest challenges that the Initiative has faced while trying to meet some of these goals?
I think when I came on board, the perception was that this is a ceremonial Initiative. The perception outside of the Beltway is that it’s a ceremonial Initiative, and I think the biggest challenge is making sure that the community knows that we are a resource to them.
One of the things that we are constantly working towards is making sure that we address the information barrier that exists, making sure we push out the latest information on data from the Civil Rights Office…and letting the community know that this is not just a White House Initiative that exists in D.C., but it has a focus across the country to work with communities across the country. That, I think, has continued to be a challenge. Some people have never heard of our Initiative.
What is one issue or action that could have the largest impact on the education of Latino students?
You know, I really think we have to focus on cradle to career. I really do think that you focus on that framework, then we will start seeing increases in our completion rates. I don’t know that there’s one. I want the whole enchilada.
I would say (college) access, affordability and quality, but then I take it back to, well you’ve got to start with your early learning. So that’s a tough one. I really do think you have to see the whole framework.
What has been the best moment of your tenure?
That one’s a tough one. I would have to say for me it was the day we were able to have a celebration at the White House (in October 2015) that reflected our Hispanic community from across this country. To have the president stand there … and to have him announce that we had 150 commitments totaling $335 million, like, I think for me that was the day that we could point to the fact that we helped change the narrative — that we could point to leaders that were there celebrating with us that are investing millions of dollars in the future of this country by educating our Hispanic students.
What’s next for the Initiative? Is there a chance of it folding under the new administration?
I can’t speculate on what the next administration plans to do with my executive order and this initiative and the other initiatives that we have under executive order, but I can tell you and I can point to the fact that we have a strong bipartisan history that I hope will carry us through for the next 25 years.
You can’t ignore that there’s a growing number of Hispanic students in our public school system. You can’t ignore the fact that we’ve got a new majority-minority in our public school system. You can’t ignore the fact that by 2050, we’ll be 60 percent of the population. So, I would encourage the next administration to look at the bipartisan work that’s been done over the years and to continue to focus on progress.
Any advice for your successor?
I really have been in awe of the students that I’ve met. If you’re going to work on creating policy and new initiatives, talk to the community. Get to know the students and their story. It’s powerful. These students have amazing futures ahead of them. I keep a lot of the thank you notes that I get from them because they’re a reminder of why we do what we do. It’s getting out of the D.C. bubble and really connecting with what’s happening at the local level.
So, my best advice is just hear it directly from the students and from the teachers, the educators, the parents. That really will drive innovation and policy and hopefully continue to drive and advance the mission of this Initiative.
What are some final projects your team is working on?
We just closed our migrant series initiative. We had a Latina summit at the White House. We recently had our final commission meeting and we started talking about our priorities that our commissioners would like to focus on in 2017. So, we’re just wrapping up. We want to finish strong. We want to make sure the community knows that while I might not be here, this Initiative still has a mission to accomplish and that it takes all of us to make sure that we get it done.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know yet, but I know that whatever I decide to do, it’s going to have a focus on education and equity reform. I want to continue to stay in this space and continue to help kids and parents have access and make sure I continue to connect those dots.