Arlene Sanchez was raised in Boston, attended Boston Public Schools, and taught in them prior to joining EdNavigator as our first Boston Navigator. Her passion is advocating alongside students and families who are new to the country. We sat down to learn more about her experiences as a student, teacher, family member, and Navigator in Boston’s schools.
Tell us about how you grew up. What made you you?
My parents came from Dominican Republic in the 1990s, when my mother was pregnant with me. We arrived as a group of six, with little money and no English. For almost a year, my father worked three jobs here in Boston with my oldest siblings, while my mother lived with me and one sister in New York. Finally we joined them in Jamaica Plain, the epicenter of the Latinx community in Boston. We all went to the neighborhood schools. There wasn’t a dialogue about “picking the best school.” When you live in a constant state of financial distress, your basic needs are not being met, and your neighbors are all sending their kids to these schools, it makes sense to do the same.
In retrospect, we were handicapped because of the lack of resources in those schools. My parents didn't know, for example, that my older siblings needed mental health support because the migration was really difficult on them. Additionally, navigating the American school system seemed so foreign and disorienting. Given their situation, my siblings needed to get involved with extracurricular activities. Our schools didn't have many, or didn’t provide opportunities for parents like mine to understand what opportunities were available for their children. My eldest siblings entered middle school soon after they arrived, but no one was pointing them toward college early on, or explicitly teaching them the skills necessary to apply to and graduate from college. College became a distant dream. Although I believe it should not have taken this long, the sister right before me was the first to break that cycle. She made it possible for me to see a path to college for myself.
What was college like?
I almost failed out my freshman year. I felt that I didn't fit into the Smith narrative. Universities and colleges are very white spaces because of the history of our country, but I didn't know that at the time. Thriving in a space like that is really difficult. You're hearing language you haven’t heard before, or about authors you've never read. You hear people talk about traveling to the Bahamas for the weekend. It was like, what world am I in? It made me frustrated, not only with my academic experience in Boston, but also with my family. I’m 18, my family has been in this country for 18 years; why are we still struggling paycheck to paycheck? That put me into a deep depression.
But then I started student teaching. I found that teaching in my community was my calling. I wanted to teach to empower, and to raise my students’ consciousness. More so, I wanted them to use literature as a window to access the experiences of people outside their race, socioeconomic background, religion, sexuality, etc. My biggest fear was that my students would get to the place I got to at Smith, and fail because they weren't prepared to tackle a world that wasn't known to them.
How did that lead you to EdNavigator?
While teaching, I found a lot of joy in connecting with families. When I think about my own trajectory, I had opportunities because of people who intervened and gave us a suggestion or access to resources. I wanted to sit with parents like mine and say, I get it, and lay it out for them in a way that my parents never had it laid out. Giving them alternatives, resources, choice—these things are often stripped away from people who migrate to a new country and don't know how to advocate for themselves or have the confidence to confront systems.
It’s difficult to be a parent in a school system in the United States. And those struggles are multiplied when you are poor, an immigrant, and a person of color. I’ve witnessed how easily institutions can dismiss families that lack the cultural and social capital necessary to advocate for what they and their kids deserve. People with a narrative like my parents’ have a disadvantage attaining equitable access to resources. The reality of this is what lights the fire in my belly. The sacrificial journey of our parents is not to be taken for granted. Empowering families with knowledge can truly alter the life outcomes of a child. I’m a product of that philosophy. That’s why I’m here.
Can you talk about the “navigation” you’ve done with your own family?
This winter, 10 of my family members completed the journey from the Dominican Republic to Boston. My grandfather filed for them about 14 years ago. After nearly 13 years of waiting and unexpected setbacks, we received the gift of our family coming over from our motherland.
My youngest cousin is a junior in high school. To me, it was very important that we got him in the right school. The district wanted to place him at Brighton High School because they had openings. But they don't have supports for English language learners there, especially for newcomer students. That didn’t make any sense to me. We were able to connect with the Margarita Muñiz Academy, and they said they could take him. We didn’t misuse the system—we just had access to information, and we made a phone call. The Muñiz is known for their dual language program. My cousin is excelling there—straight As.
I’m also working with my older cousins, aunts, and uncles to place them in ESOL classes, work on resumes and prepare for job interviews, and consider further certifications and community college. Our hope is that they’ll benefit from the sacrifices my parents and siblings made, and that we can build on our resources and knowledge to give them a head start.
How would you like to see these systems change to support families that are new to the country?
I used to teach at the Gardner Pilot Academy in Brighton. It’s a community school, which means that part of their mission is to also educate the parents of the children they teach. It takes a very dynamic team to be able to do that work, and do it well. But it’s a model I feel should be replicated—where the school becomes a haven for the whole family.
Schools also need to rethink parent engagement to be inclusive of families who are new to the country. Almost a third of Boston Public School students are English language learners (and nearly half speak a first language other than English). Many will likely be the first in their family to graduate from an American school. In the beginning of each school year, schools should provide an overview of what their child should learn for the year, with translators, and let parents ask questions about how to support their kids at home. The reality is, you don't know what you don't know. If parents don't know what the standards are, how are they supposed to know if their child is on grade level, and how are they supposed to advocate and make demands of the school system? Parent engagement can't happen if the dominant language is the only one used to communicate knowledge.
We want our families to be able to have these resources in their schools. And know how to find them. It shouldn't be hard. It shouldn't be intimidating. I wish there was no need for us as Navigators. But since there is, I’m very glad to be doing this work for and with parents.