Students listen in during a Spanish-language financial literacy workshop on Aug. 30, 2019, at Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis. Credit: Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

This story comes to you from MPR News, a partner with Sahan Journal. We will be sharing stories between and

On a recent Friday evening, a group of Latino parents gathered at Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis. Over a dinner of chicken and rice after work, they took part in a Spanish-language financial literacy workshop, designed to introduce them to the basics of mortgages, student loans and saving for college.

Rosita Balch, who works for Hennepin County, has been involved in coordinating these workshops for the past decade as part of the Latino Youth Development Collaborative. It started when she, as a mother and first-generation immigrant from Colombia, became concerned about the education achievement gap she saw in Minnesota’s Latino community.

“There is a misunderstanding in the system that the Latino parents do not participate, they do not care about education and I was concerned about that. I said, ‘That’s not true,’” Balch said. “So, I thought, we need to do the work with the parents.”

According to recently released data from the Minnesota Department of Education, only about 67 percent of Latino students graduate from high school in four years. That’s compared to 88 percent of Minnesota’s white students.

There are similar gaps in reading and math achievement.

For Balch, these achievement gaps have nothing to do with the ability or commitment of Latino students and their families. She said Latino families are deeply committed to hard work and education, but they have a different way of expressing their respect for education.

“Culturally, we were trained to value the work of teachers,” said Balch. “We were not trained to question. We just trust and believe that the teachers are doing the best for our kids. So, that silence or respect has been interpreted by the system as ‘these parents don’t care.’”

Balch said parents in her community need to be shown how different the U.S. education system is from many systems in Latin America, and how this system works best for those who are assertive.

“We need to understand the rules of the game and what is the job of the teacher and what is my job and they don’t know their job as partners in the education of their kids,” Balch said, “If they know that, they’ll do anything. These are families that have two or three jobs. They work really hard. But education is a priority. It is a priority for all of us.”

Balch is trying to empower Latino families to reach their goals through her work at the Latino Youth Development Collaborative. She helps organize weekly workshops for Latino families on topics like financial literacy, parenting, computer skills, grading systems and college readiness. They go on field trips to universities. And they do an intense 12-week seminar on the U.S. education system to teach parents what a school board is, what a principal’s job is and how the U.S. education system works.

“We want the parents to be able to sit at the table with the decision making and say, ‘hey, how about a different lunch? Oh, I would like to propose soccer instead of hockey,’” Balch said. “We want for them to exercise their power. This is to create leaders.”

One of the parents who attended a recent training seminar, Isabel Ramos, said coming to these meetings has been empowering for her. Ramos, a Minneapolis resident who works as a house cleaner, said she’s learned a lot and even advocated for her daughter to go to a different school that’s a better fit.

“It’s a program that complements. It doesn’t just tell us how to get a better school, but how to succeed — all the different parts of it, financial, parenting,” Ramos said, “As an immigrant we don’t know how banks or savings accounts work, all those things that eventually benefit our children.”

This is exactly what Balch is hoping the Latino Youth Development Collaborative will do for parents. For her, success looks like a child in her community graduating from college, or a parent getting involved in a school board. But it might also look like a teacher or school administrator sharing more accurate and timely information with a Latino family.

The Latino Youth Development Collaborative is trying to help first-generation Latino families navigate the complexities of Minnesota schools.

“Information is a big problem. It’s not only the language, but it is — are the parents getting the information that they need? They have the right to know, timely, in their language, at their level,” Balch said. “Information is power.”

Elizabeth Shockman covers education for MPR News.