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A weekend interview with Julio Fuentes, president of Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options

Florida lawmakers took several steps during the 2011 legislative session to expand school choice for Florida children. The Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options is cheering the moves, saying Hispanic children often deserve better than the mediocre public schools to which they are assigned by ZIP code. HCREO chief executive officer Julio Fuentes spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his group's goals.

Talk about how and why you became involved in these school initiatives.

In the year 2000 it was a national organization. We still are a national organization. But it was based out of DC. I was a board member for a number of years. ... It went to some restructuring and I was asked to take the reins of Hispanic CREO. My first move was to move the organization to Florida. ... Florida was a nice fit because of the current programs and the progress that we have made throughout the years. So we are now headquartered in Lakewood, Fl., which is in Palm Beach County. ... We are about to start some work in Arizona and Connecticut. But our focus has been here in Florida, and working with our Hispanic families, and business community, and faith based and so forth.

Has there been a larger demand for school choices than what has already been available?

Well, the better job that we do in getting the word out about choice and what it means and the opportunities that are available, of course, then there comes the demand for it. Because that's what it all boils down to in our community, is basically just educating them that they have options, that they don't have to have their kids in that failing school down the road there. It's a matter of getting into the communities and spreading this message of choice.

When I lived in Miami, there were many Hispanic communities. It wasn't just one. There were groups that were very wealthy and didn't go into the public schools at all. And there were groups that were very poor and were part of those heavily migrant, heavily struggling schools. How do you tailor your message to the many groups within the state of Florida?

Well, our approach to the market, if you will, our business plan is laid out kind of as a franchise approach to school choice. For example we have Hispanic CREO being the umbrella organization and then we have various chapters that reach individual communities. Just to give you an example, we have a group that's called PUEDO, which in Spanish means 'I can.' That stands for People United for Educational Options. That is basically our civic action network. That's where we work with various chambers of commerce, a lot of social organizations out there, LULAC, the National Puerto Rican Coalition out of D.C. So basically partnering with a lot of these organizations that have a grassroots approach to whatever mission they have.

REACH is another one, that's our faith-based outreach. Religious Educators for the Advancement of Hispanic Children. That's where we work with over 2,000 churches nearly 1,000 of them located right here in Florida. ... They all have their own look and feel and language as it pertains to their groups.

Probably the most attractive one we have is our Chispa Champions, chispa meaning 'spark' in Spanish. that is our Coalition of Hispanic Instructors in Support of Parent Awareness. This is a group that started out with about 40 public school teachers in support of school choice. Their coming out party was at the rally in Tallahassee that we did jointly with the Step Up For Students folks. ... This group in particular has been getting a lot of attention for obvious reasons. ... They could care less about the politics. Their focus is literally on the child and their message is 'I want to see this child graduate, and I'm going to do the best to see that he graduates from my class. If not, it's okay that he goes to another school. Because at the end of the day, I want to see him graduate.' That's kind of their message, and it's a tough one to argue with ...

Are there certain communities that you need to target more than others?

Miami is kind of its own world, its own continent. So we spend a lot of time on how we do business in Miami. We were very successful in Jacksonville, in Tampa, the Fort Myers area. Right here in our own backyard, in West Palm Beach, we have a great grassroots approach and base for us. We really try. I can't say there is one heavy area of concentration.

There are so many types of school choice that are being expanded. ... Are there things you support as being best, vs. those that you don't see as working for whatever reason?

No, we really believe in choice, in expanding choice. We really embrace all types of choice that are out there. The next step in our business plan is exactly that, getting out there in states like Arizona and Connecticut and expressing the need for more choice. Choice is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Do you worry at all that some people say it's taking money away from the public school system that is serving so many of the Hispanic students who maybe don't know they have choices yet, and they're losing out because of the expansion of choice programs?

Well, we don't worry about that. We do have those kind of critics out there. None of these programs is the silver bullet to solve the educational crisis we face, especially in our community. The census numbers that just came out basically show the direction this country is going. I'm basically the buzzkill at any event I go to. You hear, 'We're the Hispanics of the future. Kumbaya. This is great.' But if you really start peeling back that banana and start looking that 50 percent of our Hispanic children are not graduating, what does that mean for the future of this country? So I mean, again, none of these programs is the silver bullet to solve the crisis that we're in, but it is a step in the right direction. ...

I have found a lot of times that Hispanic families, especially ones that are newer to the country, really embrace their education and make sure that their children do, too. ... Do you think if they have more options that will just increase their successes?

That's basically it in a nutshell. Unfortunately they arrive here in this country and they are assigned a school according to the ZIP code that they live in and they think that's it, that's their home for the next eight years. ... Those are the communities we like to spend a lot of time and build the relationships in.

Is there anything schools can do to help? A lot of times migrant families that are in farming arrive not at the start of the school year but at the start of the season, so sometimes they miss periods of education. Is there some part of your program that addresses that?

It's funny you mention that. ... That is an area that we are looking to develop because it is a huge gap and it is definitely a huge necessity in the work that we do. That is something we are going to start working on.

Are there certain things we should be looking for ... that you are doing to put the word out that families have choices and choices are increasing for them?

In particular I would like to point out June 13-14 down in Fort Lauderdale at the Marriott. We are having, we don't know if we aer calling it a a conference or a summit yet -- we are trying to stay away from that language because everyone seems to hold a conference or a summit. But basically its a two-day event. And actually for that reason we're trying to do something really different. ... When I first got involved in this movement I was looked at as some wacky guy trying to kill public education. Basically I thought I was involved in some sort of cult, for that matter. But we've definitely made some progress. There's data showing that it works, and it works very well in our community. And I just don't see any kind of celebration or embrace of the work that has been taking place and these families that have succeeded with choice. So we are putting together an event that is more on the celebration side. Of course it's going to have some educational components as well, but more of a celebration type of thing.

Why did you decide to do this?

For me it's definitely grown to be a passion. Again, when I first got involved with Hispanic CREO, the topics we were discussing around the board room were such common sense to me, I didn't understand what was the huge battle, what was the big debate. So just getting more involved. And then witnessing some of these schools with some of the issues that these families have to go through. It's tough to witness that. I will be the first to say that I have been blessed with many fancy titles, as president of Hispanic CREO, and I've been appointed by our former governor Charlie Crist to be commissioner of juvenile justice, and a lot of fancy titles. But there's definitely one title that's most important to me, and that is the one of parent. I can't imagine anything greater than being able to supply my kids with the best possible education. So if I can do it myself I feel honored to go out and spread my message.

Posted by Jeff Solochek at 12:00:17 pm on May 14, 2011