In recent years, the number of Indigenous peoples from Central America migrating to the United States has increased. In 2011, an estimated 500,000 Indigenous Maya were already living and working in the country. Since 2011, Department of Justice data show that this group’s annual migration rates continue to increase, evidenced by the use of Mayan languages in immigration courts between 2012 and 2016.

And yet, census data routinely overlooks the presence of Indigenous immigrants. There are several reasons why. Census data groups Indigenous Latinxs under American Indian or Alaskan Native, which may be confusing to Indigenous peoples of Central and South America, who associate this racial category with Indigenous peoples from U.S. territory. Additionally, census questionnaires are not distributed in Indigenous languages, making them difficult for speakers of Indigenous languages to complete. Further, as a result of centuries of discrimination, Indigenous peoples may also fear reporting their identities. Because of this, Indigenous peoples in the United States are often typed as Hispanic and/or Latinx, while their Indigenous identity goes unreported. While there is a lot of linguistic diversity within the Indigneous Latinx community, this piece focuses on those who speak an Indigenous language as their home language, with varying levels of proficiency in Spanish and English.

This problem is not confined to census data. A growing number of reports show that Indigenous Latinx children are being similarly overlooked and obscured by schools, meaning that their linguistic needs and abilities may not be identified. If school districts do not take steps to identify and screen their Indigenous Latinx English learners (ELs), they will not be able to provide them with proper support. Schools must develop high-quality identification and assessment processes that accurately identify all students’ linguistic abilities.

Indigenous Latinx ELs in Schools

While we know that there is an increasing number of Indigenous Latinx students in schools, the National Center for Education Statistics does not report any Mayan languages in the top thirty native languages spoken by ELs. Some argue that the silencing of Indigenous communities and lack of knowledge among educators of Indigenous languages has obscured the true number of English learners who speak them. For example, a school in Baltimore, Maryland only recently realized part of their student population speaks Mixtec after noticing a sharp increase in reports of students with learning disabilities. These students weren’t struggling to develop skills in their home language of Spanish: they were native speakers of Mixtec. In essence, concerns about these students’ developmental trajectories were misplaced due to the erroneous assumption that all Latinx students are native Spanish speakers.

The erasure of Indigenous students is not confined to one school alone. A study in Central Florida found that, at one school district, Indigenous Mexican languages were under-measured by a factor of 19. School officials involved in the initial assessment of new students often assumed that families from Central America spoke Spanish, and were even observed changing home language data in the school database from an Indigenous language to Spanish.

In Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the district with the highest concentration of ELs in the U.S. reported that in the 2020–2021 school year, only 389 students spoke Indigenous languages. Some argue that this is a gross underestimate of the number of students who speak Indigenous languages. A recent mapping project done in collaboration with UCLA and CIELO found that there are at least 11,000 individuals in Los Angeles County who speak Indigenous languages. We know that this is only a fraction of the true population, because the map only includes those households that applied for CIELO’s pandemic financial assistance. In June 2021, the LAUSD Board of Education approved $10 million for Indigenous Student Achievement in response to the disproportionate hardships that Indigenous communities and students faced during the pandemic, recognizing that Indigenous students have long been overlooked by schools.

The Importance of Identification

The concurrent increase in non-Spanish speaking ELs and disproportionate learning loss of ELs during the pandemic necessitates that Title III funding be made available to school districts to develop, design, and administer high quality home-language surveys and assessments to ensure that all students’ home languages and abilities are accurately identified.

Data on the languages that all students speak can guide districts in deciding what services would be helpful for their community. For example, according to Samuel Klein, the supervisor in the Office of English Learners at Arlington Public Schools (APS), parent/caregiver informational programs can be particularly helpful for families who are less familiar with the U.S. school system. At APS, 19 percent of students are English learners. APS conducts family programs “around helping parents understand the importance of parent engagement in school,” giving information to parents on anything from the structure of the school system to how to read a report card to how to communicate with their children’s teachers. With better data, schools will know which languages to conduct community engagement events in, which languages they should provide translation and/or interpretation services for, and what knowledge gaps families might have about the U.S. education system. Teachers can also use this information in the classroom when creating lesson plans. When schools provide teachers with accurate information on a student’s background, lessons can utilize an inclusive pedagogy that incorporates student’s backgrounds as a fund of knowledge. When working with ELs, knowing the students’ home language can also help teachers provide targeted support that builds on students’ home language proficiencies.

Identification is particularly important for speakers of Indigenous languages, who are often misclassified as native Spanish speakers. Failing to identify a student’s home language or assuming a student is a native Spanish speaker limits the school’s ability to provide the unique resources that may be particularly effective for the student. For instance, determining the home languages of all students is crucial in order to make necessary pedagogical adaptations for Indigenous children coming from cultures rich in orature and not literacy. Students who speak an Indigenous language often come to U.S. schools with different skill sets than their Spanish-speaking counterparts. ELs who speak an Indigenous language:

Additionally, without knowing a student’s home language, teachers cannot foster a student’s knowledge of and development in their home language, which is shown to increase positive development and help them learn English. For these reasons, schools must better identify non-Spanish speaking ELs to provide tailored instruction that better assists students in developing their skills both in English and in their home languages.

Challenges with Identification

There are two main hurdles for implementing inclusive identification processes for speakers of Indigenous languages. First, schools must create an environment that encourages parents to accurately report their children’s linguistic capabilities. Second, school staff must be trained to properly record the information that parents report.

In her work in schools in Central Florida, Dr. Rebecca Campbell-Montalvo, postdoctoral research associate in the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, found that parents can be hesitant to disclose the languages their children speak for a variety of reasons. She explains that by “making a welcoming school climate and atmosphere and culture that people can perceive,” parents will be encouraged to report home languages. Creating a welcoming atmosphere could involve displaying signs, sending families information in multiple languages, and providing translators at school events.

Once parents feel comfortable reporting, it is necessary to train anyone involved in the intake process to record all the languages a student speaks accurately. In her research, Dr. Campbell-Montalvo found that “there’s this bigger misconception that Indigenous Latino languages are Spanish.” This misconception contributed to school officials reporting the home language as Spanish only. Professional development training can help address this. Dr. Campbell-Montalvo recommends including information on why language identification is important, data on the most common languages spoken in the area, and strategies for asking families questions that encourage them to share information on their home language(s). Schools must also ensure that their reporting software allows them to input multiple languages, as many Indigenous Latinx students may be multilingual.

This is especially critical as schools move from pandemic response to pandemic recovery. Given the considerable evidence that ELs were particularly marginalized in many communities’ pandemic learning models, schools need as much—and as accurate—data on students’ linguistic capabilities as they can get.

The School District of Palm Beach County, located in Southern Florida, exemplifies many of Dr. Campbell-Montalvo’s suggestions in how they serve their Indigenous Latinx ELs. The school serves a student population of about 11 percent English learners, many of whom speak Mam and Q’anjob’al, which are Indigenous to Guatemala. According to Francisco Harvey Oaxaca, who is currently the director of multicultural and migrant education, in the past, families with Indigenous backgrounds might have indicated their child or home only speaks Spanish, but the school district has “worked really hard with the community to make sure we are addressing the individual needs of the student, so really working to make sure that it [the home language] really is Spanish, because it may be Spanish, but it could also be Popti’ or Q’anjob’al or something else.” The school takes a number of steps to create an inclusive space within the school, including hiring community language facilitators (CLFs) who are bilingual and biliterate in Q’anjob’al and Mam, and working with an internal Mayan Translation Team (made up of Q’anjob’al, Akateko, Mam, and Spanish speakers) who train CLFs and conduct professional development for other teachers and staff. According to Oaxaca, there is one session “specifically about the Mayan culture that our Mayan team really developed… helping them [teachers and staff] understand about the differences in the languages,” such as differences in phonology.

In outreach to the community, the district encourages CLFs to send out information in Indigenous languages and even conducts district wide events in Indigenous languages to help families navigate the district. During the pandemic, whenever videos were sent to parents in English and Spanish, they “were really intentional about creating those videos in Q’anjob’al, Mam, and making sure we had those accessible.” The school also collaborates with the Guatemalan-Mayan Center, a local advocacy organization, to reach and support as many families as possible. By making a conscious effort to respect and build upon the students’ knowledge in their home language, they have been able to improve their data on students’ home languages and better serve their students.

Screening and Assessment

Once students have been identified, it is important that schools understand and assess their abilities in their Indigenous languages, Spanish, and English. Indigenous students are often misclassified based on school administrators’ assumptions about their country of origin or lack of knowledge on Indigenous languages—but often, they are misclassified because their limited ability to speak in Spanish is misunderstood as Spanish fluency. By developing diagnostic assessments in Indigenous languages, Spanish, and English, schools would be better able to develop tailored English curriculum and to appropriately place students in their classes. This is especially important for schools with dual-language immersion programs, as Indigenous Latinx students with limited Spanish proficiency or proficiency in an Indigenous language as well as Spanish may need different support than their native Spanish-speaking peers.

An internal diagnostic assessment in the home language would be produced within the school or district for the purpose of assessing a student’s proficiency in their home language. Depending on the student’s educational background, this may include a written test in the home language or a conversation with a multilingual speech pathologist. Particularly for older ELs, diagnostic assessments help teachers understand what skills the students enter the classroom with and where instruction should be focused. For example, because learning to read and write in the home language helps students learn those skills more quickly in English, a reading assessment in the student’s native language(s) may help teachers better understand how to target reading skills given the student’s base knowledge. Samuel Klein explains that at APS, internal diagnostic assessments in the home language are one tool that can be used if the student is struggling to learn English after long-term teaching and intervention to see if there are any underlying learning challenges.

Another tool schools can use to understand the skills of their ELs are native language assessments, which are standardized tests in the students’ home language. Some states have made efforts to offer native language assessments in a variety of languages, while others offer standardized tests in English only. These assessments allow schools to assess their students’ knowledge of academic content. If a student performs better on a native language assessment than assessments in English, they may be struggling with English language acquisition rather than content. This kind of distinction shows teachers where they should focus their curriculum to best support their students.

However, the process of creating native language assessments can be more time consuming and expensive than internal diagnostic assessments. According to Samuel Klein, “A full document, like a student handbook, can be $10,000 to translate. So, to spend $10,000 to translate for sixty-four [Vietnamese speaking students] is… not a good use of funds;” one can assume, then, that translating and grading a written assessment would be even more expensive. When deciding whether or not to create native language assessments, states and districts should consider both expense and the needs of their specific EL population. For example, if an EL has had limited formal education, content exams in the home language may not be a good indicator of a student’s knowledge, as they may not be familiar with the academic vocabulary in their home language used on a standardized test. However, if states and districts do decide to offer native language assessments, they need to address the needs of all ELs, including Indigenous students. Oaxaca confirmed that as Palm Beach County and Florida push for more native language assessments, their district knows assessments “can’t just be Spanish… we need to be using the Indigenous languages as well.”

While developing native language assessments is costly and not always appropriate, there are many ways for schools to assess a student’s base knowledge. Developing diagnostic assessments will help schools better understand the needs of their students—and thereby provide them with the best possible education.

Avenues for Funding

Fortunately, there are already programs in place that could support and fund school districts developing or revamping their assessment protocols, especially in districts with a high concentration of a particular low incidence language. The Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) created funding for Competitive Grants for State Assessments (CGSA). States can pursue CGSA funds in order to develop or improve models that assess English learners’ proficiencies in their home languages or in English, and measure student growth. The federal government should include specific priorities to encourage applications from states interested in developing new native language assessments and diagnostics as part of the next CGSA grant cycle.

Bringing Everyone into the Fold

There are many actions that schools can take to better serve their Indigenous Latinx students. All of these begin with properly identifying the home language of each student so that tailored supports can be put in place. According to Dr. Campbell-Montalvo, improving outcomes for Indigenous Latinx students requires “broader policy and professional development and district orientation… being more welcoming of diversity of students and families, and then just incorporating that into the day to day of how the school runs.” In order to support Indigenous students, schools must show them that they matter. This means recognizing and accurately reporting their home languages, sending families documents in their home language, and providing translators. More broadly, it means making sure that staff, teachers, and administrators are taught about the backgrounds of their students. In the wake of a pandemic that disproportionately affected ELs and their communities, schools must take steps to support their students and accelerate learning.

header photo: Teacher Willy Jimenez talks with Indigenous Mayan Mam-speaking children at a reading circle held in the Grupo Cajola library. source: John Moore/getty images