While Idaho is certainly focused on education reform — all the more so, given the state’s low national performance rankings — none of the reforms currently being discussed address the educational needs of English language learners living in rural Idaho.

These students continue to be an invisible population. The Idaho State Department of Education’s 2008 Rural Education Initiative Report recognized the challenges of rural education and the challenges faced by disabled children. However, nowhere in the document are English learners acknowledged or mentioned. More recently, the department’s goals aim to “continue efforts to remove barriers for teacher certification and provide support for those who want to enter the teaching profession,” ostensibly reducing courses focusing on English language instruction. And the rise of merit pay for school performance seems likely to threaten the motivation of qualified teachers to work in rural areas since it may take at least five years for English learners to reach academic language proficiency.

Such omissions, in the face of rising English learning student populations across the nation, are political statements of how students learning English continue to be dismissed by the education system, further ignoring the need for extra resources.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the nation’s Hispanic population grew by 43 percent, rising from 35.3 million in 2000 to 50.5 million in 2010, now comprising 16 percent of the total U.S. population. Of the elementary and secondary school children across the country, 5.1 million are English Language Learners (ELLs), accounting for just 10 percent of the total school population, according to the National Clearinghouse of English Language Acquisition. This paper presents insights from my 2007-2010 survey and from the Latinos in Treasure Valley, Idaho (2012) documentary. Approximately 80 percent of them speak Spanish, and 20 percent speak 400 or so other languages. Half of the ELL population lives in rural communities, yet only 33 percent of U.S. towns enroll ELL students. Hence, ELL student enrollment growth across the U.S. appears to be increasing in rural areas at a fast pace. This is the case in Idaho.

A report from the Idaho Commission on Hispanics Affairs (2012) shows that the Latino population has grown by 73 percent during the past decade, and if it weren’t for this growth, many of the rural counties would be losing population. In Idaho, Latino children represent 15.9 percent of the public school population. From 2007 to 2010, the percentage of Latino children enrolled in public schools increased from 12.4 to 15.9 percent; 60 percent of this population is housed in Southwest and South-Central districts, which include large rural areas.

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Some schools, like Reed Elementary School in Kuna, embrace bilingual education and encourage students to bring along their maletas, full of cultural knowledge.

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Rural schools typically receive the fewest resources while they serve large populations of economically disadvantaged students and English language learners, as Jerry Johnson and Marty Strange of the Rural School and Community Trust show. Teachers in rural schools often know little about ELL teaching pedagogy, English as a second language (ESL) curriculum development and assessment or language-acquisition theories. Also, the pool of qualified teachers is extremely small (almost nonexistent). Finally, the educational opportunities and resources available for students enrolled in rural schools are often very scarce and thinly spread. Yet, none of the reforms, vision, mission and goals of Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna address these realities. On the contrary, they seem to contradict the recommendations given by experts in the field.


The percentage of Latino teens dropping out of high school is, and has been, higher across the country than that of African Americans and Caucasians every year for the past three decades. A report by the Idaho Commission on Latino Affairs in 2007 showed a variety of indicators regarding Latino education outcomes. In the period between 1993 and 2004, 7,553 Latino youth dropped out of Idaho public high schools. However, in 2009 to 2010, the percentage of Latinos estimated to have dropped out of secondary schools decreased to 1.72 percent. Unfortunately, official “dropout” statistics rate neither accurately count nor report the vast number of students who do not graduate from high school. Sometimes a missing student is thought to be either in school or to have graduated, when, in fact, the student may have dropped out (Orfield, Losen, Wald, and Swanson, 2004). Moreover, results from the ACT College Readiness Benchmark show that in 2011, only 10 percent of Latinos in Idaho (compared with 26 percent of all students) were ready for first-year college-level coursework. This means 90 percent of Latino students in Idaho are not ready for the first year of college work. Also, in 2011 Latino students had the hardest time meeting language standards which measure language proficiency in both social and academic contexts. In the 8th and 10th grades, 71.2 percent and 72.6 percent of the students met the language standards, but only 52.9 percent and 52.2 percent of Latinos met proficiency in the language standards. The data presented demonstrates that Latinos in Idaho continue to face poor quality of education.


In a study I conducted to examine how Latino students experience education in rural areas  in Idaho, as well as in the documentary Latinos in Treasure Valley, Idaho (see bottom of article), students explored issues that have impacted their trajectory in the education system. Definition of rural areas by the National Center for Education Statistics.Language was a central racial marker identified by all of the students to have a profound impact in their lives in school settings. Many interviewees specifically talked about how they arrived to school with their “maletas” (backpacks) filled with treasures, stories and language experiences—yet they were not allowed to use them or to bring them into the schools. The fact that students were proficient in Spanish instead of English guaranteed them a placement below grade level, often a seat in the back of the room or time in the resource room (this separate remedial classroom is run mostly by paraprofessionals who are often not formally trained to work with ELLs). A case in point is the story of Jasmín, who returned to second grade in the United States. She was placed in the first grade because she didn’t know English, even though she knew how to read and write in Spanish. The teacher asked the only other Latino student to help her, but he didn’t. The names used for the participants are pseudonyms for the purpose of this paper. So she tried to copy what he was writing. She shared how frustrated and isolated this experience made her feel. She was pulled into the resource room for about a year and, as she revealed, “out of madness, I forced myself to learn to read [English] quickly.” Another student mentioned how she was asked to stop speaking in Spanish. She agreed with her teacher’s request, without really understanding why she couldn’t speak her native language. Another student recalled: “I felt frustrated because I didn’t understand English and I couldn’t answer the teacher. At night I would cry because I didn’t want to be in school. I wanted my parents to take me out of school.”

These students—and many others—were either forbidden to speak their language or relegated to an inferior status in school. However, they were often rewarded for being silent and complaisant. Despite the common belief that the United States is a country in which the melting pot flourishes, languages spoken by minority groups have often been under attack and regularly relegated to an inferior position. As Gloria Anzaldúa so eloquently writes in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, “So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.”

Silencing students’ voices seriously curtails their active participation in school life. With few opportunities to engage in dialogue, to build on their prior knowledge or to reflect on their lived experiences, students are marginalized in their classrooms.

Another racial marker explored by interviewees was the low expectations held by teachers and school counselors. English language learners were not viewed as “promising college material,” and were often encouraged to drop out or enroll in trade school. In an interview, Carlos sadly remembered the blatant discrimination he and his peers experienced in school. He was one of seven students who graduated from high school and, while recounting an encounter with his college adviser, he mentioned the surprised comment the adviser made: “Oh… you made it.” Even though this comment hurt him, he wasn’t surprised since he was brought up hearing negative comments of plausible failure. He even laughed and said, “I think I was allowed to go to school so I could mess it up, and I would fulfill the stupid/lazy Mexican stereotype.” Students talked about the internalization of these messages, and how they learned to consider lack of success as their fault.

Many students also noted that the absence of an easily discernible connection between the language and content of schooling (i.e., the “written world”) and their immediate world was problematic. They didn’t see themselves reflected in the classroom curriculum; no one like them was present in any of the books they had to read. They stated that they were never able to insert themselves or their own stories into what they were learning in school. One student eloquently said: “My life was not as it was portrayed in the children’s books read to me. I didn’t have blond hair or blue eyes, and much less a home with a white picket fence and a dog called Spot or Lucky.” Certainly the message received by this student is that the world inhabited by these characters was the only, the best and the preferred world. Unfortunately, this example demonstrates that even though it has been argued since the ’70s that the nation is pluralistic, made up of diverse groups with multiple perspectives on reality, schools in rural Idaho continue to perceive a one-sided, Eurocentric understanding of values and beliefs. Further research should focus on why there are disproportionate numbers of white teachers working in Idaho to determine whether there is a basic shortage of teachers of color or whether hiring practices are discriminatory or some combination thereof.

Students did not see themselves reflected in the teaching force either. This may correlate with the fact that even though the Latino population in schools is 15.9 percent, only 1.3 percent of teachers are from the same ethnic group of the students (or 227 out of 17,369, according to the Idaho Commission on Hispanics Affairs).

This unstated discrimination impacts students in many ways. The students spoke about learning to come to terms with the oppression that exists, but refusing to stay quiet. They shared how learning to navigate between two worlds, and switching constantly between the cultural codes and the languages of these two worlds, became part of their being. However, the students in these studies were not only able to overcome the negative expectations received, but also to go beyond the hidden messages imparted by the media. The portrayal of Latinos in Hollywood films is one of the most important reference points many Americans use to build their perception of Latinos in American society. Unfortunately, the cinematic portrayal of Latinos has followed a stereotyping trend already established in literature.  Moreover, the students in the studies were only able to attend college to become K-12 teachers, certified in bilingual education and English as another language, because they were awarded Grow Your Own Scholarships. Unfortunately, as of last year, the Idaho State Board of Education dismantled the scholarship for teachers interested in working with ELLs.

The State Board would like 60 percent of Idahoans aged 25 to 34 to earn a degree or certificate by 2020. If we are to achieve that, changes have to be made. We need to increase the number of certified bilingual and ESL teachers to provide role models, and leaders who respect the cultural and linguistic wealth of the students, teachers who work to dismantle the cultural and racial imbalance often present in schools. Several studies have shown that low teacher expectations may arise from teachers’ personal biases or prejudices against students from diverse backgrounds. These low expectations affect the academic opportunities provided to students. For example, Rist, 2000; Ferguson, 1998 Thus, one of the biggest challenges is to invest in resources (i.e., classes, certification, professional development, guest lectures, etc.) to help educators recognize the challenges inherent in educating a diverse population and what it takes to provide a quality learning experience.

Economic, social and cultural differences are not obstacles for students to succeed; they only become obstacles when teachers view the culture of the child as deficient. On the contrary, these differences might actually be assets to the educational system. Educators need to understand that their teaching practices, their attitudes toward students, their levels of trust and their levels of investment in the learning of each student need to change, because these factors play a crucial role in the students’ academic achievement. Unless students are well grounded and maintain very solid self-images, the racism that is built into our schools and bleeds into their education will continue to stifle their learning for the foreseeable future.

The author would like to thank Kelly Holmes for her helpful review and edits and Sonia Galaviz who provided constructive feedback on the draft of the manuscript.

Watch the entire Latinos in the Treasure Valley, Idaho documentary below

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.