Anthracite Unite has taken a firm stance against corruption and institutional racism in the Hazleton Area School District, and we’ll remain committed to protecting working-class students’ right to quality education. Leading up to the May 21 primary elections, we’re running a series of posts profiling four working-class Latina mothers who are running for a seat on the Hazleton Area School Board, challenging the local petty bourgeois establishment.
Anthracite Unite: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Marilyn Calderon: My name is Marilyn Calderon. I’m from Puerto Rico. I graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education (K-6) and a minor in special education. I also have a master’s degree in curriculum and a B.S. in technology math. In 1997, I started teaching in a private school and then after graduation I started right away with the Department of Education in Puerto Rico. I worked in a range of teaching positions, from first grade teacher to sixth grade technology math; I also taught social studies, science, and English as a Second Language (ESL) to eighth grades. I was there for eight years.
And then I moved to New Jersey. I started teaching pre-K at a private school there, and then after that, I moved to Pennsylvania. I lived in Hazleton at first and now I live in Freeland, where I’ve been for twelve years. I was a substitute teacher at Scranton High School for a while and after that for nine years I was an ESL teacher in the U.S. Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program. Recently I’ve been running an after school program with a grant that we have and I still teach ESL, actually for parents, and I work with a group of STEM students through Migrant Education. Also, I teach GED Classes for Adults at Luzerne County Community College and ESL readiness for adults at Lackawanna College. I also run an Upward Bound Program at Penn State University for migrant students and I created the “Time to Learn” program for the Hazleton Integration Project (HIP), among the many other activities that I do.
From all of this experience, I think I have a unique perspective on the district, on what the students need.
AU: So why are you running for a seat on the school board?
MC: I’m running for school board because I am very concerned about the education of our children, of the students in the Hazleton Area School District (HASD). I really think our children deserve the best education possible so they can be prepared for the future. And I say this as a mother. Many people think I am running because I’m a teacher, but I’m doing this because I’m a concerned mother.
I want the best education for my children, for the children in the district, for any – any – child in the HASD. Our students are the future leaders. They deserve the best quality education. But you have to wonder whether that has been the priority at HASD. Where is the concern for our students? That is one of the things that has me running.
AU: Out of 500 Pennsylvania school districts, HASD ranks 499 – second to last – on the amount of money they spend per student. Granted this has a lot to do with poverty. But there’s also reason to believe that this is the result of poor management, particularly nepotism. In other words, administrators creating positions for their friends and then inflating those salaries might have a lot to do with it. What do you think the issue is here, and how would you fix it?
MC: This is the thing: We need the whole system changed. We need to shake everything. We need to shake it. Because we need to create something that works. Something that works for every child, for every family in the school district.
For many, many years, the HASD Administration has put themselves first. Put themselves above the students. Why do we spend so little on our students? When you put your priorities on the administration rather than on education, what do you expect to happen? It gets so frustrating when you see the money being spent in these ways when we have all of these needs: we need bilingual teachers, we need more guidance counselors, we need social workers and school psychologists, we need better transportation, we need a more innovative curriculum, and we need a bilingual education program. Right now there’s people who are on the Board and they have this power and they don’t want to lose this power because it’s going to affect their own.
Are these people going to empower members of the community? No. We need people who are going to empower the community. Then we create a system that works for everybody. That is what we have to do here. The way to repair our district is going to be by investing in our students. We need student-centered spending. We need a system that empowers everyone in the community, not only the relatives of the people with the power.
People run for this position for the power. But not me. I am a concerned person, a concerned mother. A teacher. I’m willing to work for every child here in HASD. Every child. My plan is to invest in education. To invest in progress. Progress for every single student in the district. No exceptions: Every. Single. Student. No matter what. We can’t continue with this activity, with these abuses of power.
AU: In education, diversity is an asset; and one of the things HASD has going for it is its diversity. About 51% of HASD students identify as Hispanic, 44% as white. The problem is, most students rarely encountered teachers and administrators who look like them, and HASD has very few bilingual teachers. We recently learned that there’s only one Hispanic teacher for every 1,146 Hispanic students. If elected, how would you take advantage of the district’s diversity?
MC: To me diversity means the presence of many people with individual needs, beliefs, goals, and values. Diversity should be recognized, understood, accepted, and embraced!
It is difficult when there’s people who didn’t understand that there was diversity coming to the Hazleton Area… and it came, and it’s here. In our district, this is not new. In the early 2000s, immigrants really started coming, coming, coming. By 2010, administrators already had plenty of time to get the district ready. And they didn’t pay attention to this, to the Hispanic people coming, and as a result, they didn’t have the personnel, didn’t have the teachers. Then you had another big immigration boom from 2010-2012. Again, you have this population coming, but you don’t have the teachers ready. You don’t have bilingual education set up. And now here we are in 2019 and HASD is still struggling because they are not prepared.
So what is the problem here? The problem is they see it, but they ignore it. And now in 2019, over 50 percent of the population is Latino students. And we are not ready. We don’t have the things that these students need. People say, well we have ESL, but with over 50% of the population, we need more than ESL. We need bilingual programs. In every school in HASD. But they don’t have it. They don’t have anything like it.
You can see that their priorities are different. As a mother – and as a teacher I can say many, many things, too – but as a mother, I can really understand what is needed. It’s not just language. I have a special education child. And I found myself fighting every single year for my daughter. Every single year, as a special education parent, I had to advocate for my kid. I also have two gifted kids. They don’t have nothing. Because there’s no budget, no programs. And you see when you have this district with this kind of population, there’s nothing. That’s one of the reasons I’m running. Whether I win or not, I’m going to keep fighting for the students. I will.
AU: Let’s close by talking about school discipline. As you know, there were two viral videos showing a school police officer using what many would consider excessive force against students. Plus, there are glaring racial/ethnic disparities in HASD’s discipline statistics. According to 2015 civil rights data from the Department of Education, Hispanics and other students of color (who, combined, accounted for 52 percent of all students at the time) represented 72 percent of HASD’s in-school suspensions, 69.1 percent of its out-of-school suspensions, and all eight (100 percent) of the students the district expelled.
Director of Security and School Police Services Ed Harry defended the officer’s actions, and when the Standard-Speaker asked him about the disciplinary disparities, he declared “we can’t control who commits a crime” (mind you, these are suspension data – this isn’t street crime we’re talking about). Many people are wondering why the officer in question and Harry still have jobs “policing” working class kids in a school. What’s your take on all of this?
MC: Listen, this is the thing: Why did we need to wait for this incident to happen when we knew the problem was already there? For many years, when I was in Migrant Education – going back to 2007 – I have watched this happen. I’ve seen the whole history. Every single year people would come into my classroom and say, “Marilyn, this happened…” or “This teacher said this to a student…” or “This police officer did this or that…” For many years we had this problem occurring all the time.
What’s the difference? Now the technology is showing us what happens, that’s all. And the administrators say, “Oh, we can’t do nothing.” Yes, you can do something! We need more social workers or more psychologists. We don’t need more police in the HASD because we’re not working with criminals. We’re working with students. We’re working with the people who are going to be our leaders. If you have problems with bullying, why do you need police? Why not bring in more counseling?
And then we hear many, many stories of students who drop out of the school to continue their education. If you would see how many students drop out school in the HASD, you’d be astonished [HAHS’s dropout rate is 6.07%, among the highest in Pennsylvania]. What are we doing? What are we thinking? You think more police is going to be the solution to that? No!
If you look at this age developmentally, it’s one of the hardest ages for people. People remember what it’s like to be in high school. Yes, there’s the fighting and all of that. In my school we had only one police. And that police never touched one student. But I do remember the social workers and the behavior team was always where we’d go to solve issues. Yet when you go to HASD, they’d prefer to spend thousands of dollars on police rather than counseling. Something is wrong. We can’t criminalize our kids’ education. We can’t.
You have this school district putting ten-year-olds in court, in front of a judge. Ten-years-old?! How about instead of doing that we give him the tools to solve problems. He’s growing, you know?
There are more holistic ways to go about this. In Freeland, for example, we have the YMCA and there is no pool in the YMCA and Freeland Elementary/Middle School had the pool opened for the families to use it in the spring and summer and the kids in Freeland loved going there. But they closed the pool. My neighbor said to me, “We don’t have the pool anymore, what are my kids going to do?” In Hazleton they have the Community Center, but in Freeland we don’t have a community center. And if you go to the YMCA, you have to pay for a membership. How do you think the students in Freeland are feeling when they close the only thing that they had? They feel estranged, and they feel like… now what do we do?
If you don’t want to see bad behavior continue, give students things to do! Investing in these things is an investment in our students.
AU: If people want to support your candidacy, what can they do?
MC: The primary is May 21, 2019. You can find your polling place here. You get to vote for five people, regardless of if you’re Democrat or Republican. Even if you are not in my party, you can write me in, or write in whoever you want. It’s simple.
I would encourage everyone to vote for the five people that you think will work for your family. With intelligence. With integrity. We need people working with integrity. The people in Hazleton right now have the opportunity to make change. But we’re going to need to do this by working together.