Updated at 5:02 p.m. on Feb. 1
Efforts to get more Latino teachers into U.S. schools received a boost from MacKenzie Scott's foundation, which has given a $5 million grant to Latinos for Education, a Boston-based nonprofit.
While everyone knows the online retail behemoth Amazon, Scott, founder Jeff Bezos' ex-wife, isn't quite a household name. But her foundation is quietly distributing billions of dollars annually to innovative programs and causes, often in higher education. That list now includes Latinos for Education, a national organization that believes Latino children's academic performance will benefit from a proven strategy: hiring and retaining more teachers who share their ethnicity.
Amanda Fernandez, chief executive and founder of Latinos for Education, said she's still in a bit of shock because her organization is small and relatively young: it was established in 2017.
"It just opens up a world of hope and possibility for our team," Fernandez told GBH News Monday. "And I really hope that it opens up a world of hope and possibility for our community."
Latinos are the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority group in the United States, making up nearly 23% of students in K-12 schools nationwide and 20% in Massachusetts. In 2020, about a quarter of Latino students in the state didn't graduate from high school in four years, and last year about one-third did not meet state expectations in English and mathematics.
Roberto Gonzales, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said the education gap for Latino students nationally has remained virtually unchanged in recent years.
"What happens to Latinos over the next decade will have important implications for the country as a whole," Gonzales said, pointing to their limited presence in teacher pipelines. "Latinos remain one of the most underrepresented groups among teachers."
That has deep implications for Latino students, he said. Research has found significant links between having teachers who match students' race or ethnicity and overall school performance. When teachers reflect their students' ethnicity, it's been found to improve student attendance, reduce suspensions and raise test scores, graduation rates and college attendance.
One of Latinos for Education's programs is a nine-month fellowship program in Massachusetts, Houston and the San Francisco Bay area offering professional development to Latino educators. It also offers participants a network of Latino professionals to help them expand their influence in the education sector. The group has also been active in policy efforts to get Latino teachers in training into classrooms faster and research on technological inequities among students that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Last year, Scott gave nearly $3 billion to dozens of community colleges, regional colleges and higher eduation nonprofits that help broaden access to higher education for underrepresented students. Many have never had an endowment or received such a large lump-sum gift.
Fernandez said Latino-focused organizations receive less than 2% of philanthropic funds overall in the United States. So she said she felt grateful to receive attention from the world's third-richest woman.
"So it's super-meaningful that our organization, being Latino-founded and -led, and so early in our growth, would receive this kind of investment," she said.
The organization's sphere of influence is widening. L4E, as its known, began working in the Boston Public Schools last year, where nearly 43% of students are Latino, the largest racial-ethnic group. Lorena Lopera, L4E's executive director for New England, was appointed to the Boston School Committee last year. Fernandez serves as a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and a trustee of Roxbury Community College.
The $5 million was donated to the organization without restrictions, and Fernandez said the details of how it will be used are still being worked out.
"It seems like something of a dream," she said. "I'm still processing it. I think our organization is still processing it."
And no, Fernandez said she never met Scott, who is extremely private about her philanthropy.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Roberto Gonzales’ first name.