Parents in Reading share their experiences navigating the public school

April 1, 2024 | 10:02 AM

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF

    I cover Latino communities in central Pennsylvania with a special focus on Reading and other cities where Spanish-speaking communities are growing rapidly. My stories explore the impact of language barriers, labor issues, the growth of Latino political power through grassroots efforts and many other things.

    I’m a native Spanish speaker myself. I grew up in the San Juan area of ​​Puerto Rico. The English I know now, I learned mostly thanks to watching a lot of TV growing up, mostly Nickelodeon shows. I also learned Russian in college, which I perfected during my time teaching English in southern Siberia through the Fulbright Program.

    In my free time I like to hike, hang out with my two cats, Yanka and Ruben Blades, and watch every awful horror movie I can find.

Participants at a listening session Feb. 3 in Reading were, left row front to back, Norma Castro, Arabelly León, Candy Rojas, Allan Díaz; right row back to front, Viviana Cruz, Sandra Cruz, Carmen Veras, WITF reporter Gabriela Martínez.

Gabriela Martínez / WITF

Participants at a listening session Feb. 3 in Reading were, left row front to back, Norma Castro, Arabelly León, Candy Rojas, Allan Díaz; right row back to front, Viviana Cruz, Sandra Cruz, Carmen Veras, WITF reporter Gabriela Martínez.

The listening session was part of WITF’s participation in America Amplified, a national public media collaboration dedicated to community engagement and listening. Disclosure: Through an America Amplified grant, participants in the conversation received a $50 stipend to attend.

Reading School District is one of many districts in Pennsylvania in which Latino students have become the majority.

WITF’s Gabriela Martinez sat down with four parents in Reading on Feb. 3 to learn about their experiences. They say the district has made some improvements when it comes to safety and resources for Spanish-speaking families, but that there’s still work to be done in other aspects.

Gabriela Martínez / WITF

Participants at a listening session in Reading were, left row front to back, Norma Castro, Arabelly León, Candy Rojas, Allan Díaz; right row back to front, Viviana Cruz, Sandra Cruz, Carmen Veras, WITF reporter Gabriela Martínez.


Carmen Veras, Arabelly Leon, Candy Rojas and Sandra Cruz are cafeteria workers in the Reading School District. They are parents in the district, and sometimes serve as culturally-competent guides for new Spanish-speaking students.

They all have had different experiences in the district.

Cruz knows a time when the Latino student population was the minority and believes one of his sons was discriminated against because of his dark skin. Some of the mothers, like Carmen, moved to Reading more recently.

Listen to the conversation:

Sandra: It was in 2000, when I got here to register him and everything. I struggled for 2.3 months to register him in a school because he would get kicked out of schools. During that time there were mostly white students, there were few Hispanics or children of color in these schools, so I had to fight a lot because of that. I got my kid into his first class but the teacher would complain that he would stand up and talk. I told her ‘look, before you complained because he didn’t talk now you complain that he talks too much. I think what’s happening is that you’re a racist.’ But eventually another teacher came along. She was a very beautiful person and she loved my son. She said ‘ ‘Don’t worry, Sandra, I’m going to help you okay, I’m going to help you with your son.’ And when I left my son with her she took care of him.

Carmen: Things have changed a lot. Now schools try to make sure that a translator is present or that the assistant who welcomes students knows Spanish and English. Really my experience has been gratifying. I had a lot of help in Spanish and in English. The forms are all available in both languages. I always noticed a great effort to make sure students get to class as soon as possible. I really like that aspect of it. I remember getting there on a Monday and my kids were already registered in class by Wednesday, even though I was missing a document for proof of residency.

Candy: Since I got here in 2018, the district has been doing a good job.I had a wonderful experience too. I have a 5-year-old daughter, and an 11-year old boy, and in Reading’s school district there are Spanish-speaking principals and they’ve wanted throughout time for Latinos to feel at home. Because the reality is that many of us get here and will possibly never go back to our country of origin. So our life is here. Our family is here. So really, the school district has advanced a lot. There are teachers who did a good job welcoming my children, but there are things that still need to be improved. But overall, the district has been doing a good job.

Carmen: You see the effort that teachers are making. They ask “what is that” or “how do you say that?” They ask me in English, so I’ll tell them what it means. They want to learn Spanish. You can really see the motivation. It’s been a huge change over the last 3 years. It could be said that the Latino population is taking over the public school system, so then, it follows that teachers should learn Spanish so they could better serve the system, provide better instruction and teach students better.

Safety and bullying in the district’s middle and high school were top concerns among the mothers.

Arabelly: My son talked about his experience at Reading High. He said that everything was good and he has a lot of good memories. However, I was praying to leave that district. I would pray to god that I could leave that area because I would get safety notifications daily, sometimes twice a day. You get worried. In the school where he is now, I haven’t gotten those calls. I’ve never received warning about things happening in Exeter, where he is now. Thank God.

Candy: You know what’s happening here? I’ve noticed there’s some inequality. I’ve noticed that the schools in the North are better than the ones in the South. My son is in one of the schools in the South and I even notice how the infrastructure is different. In the North life is more comfortable in terms of the material and economic and when you go to the schools in the south –well, you know, because you had to transfer your son to Exeter. Reading has done a lot of good work but there’s still room for improvement and it has to be said.

Candy: I’ve been able to visit many schools, the ones in the North, as well as the ones in the South. I don’t believe they have a better curriculum, but the kids have a better schedule. It’s better treatment. I get that schools in the south have a larger population. So if at some moment there would be an opportunity to break up some of the schools and create another program, it would be a better education for everyone.

Sandra: My sons were bullied when they went to school in the South. So then it was time for me to transfer them out of that school, to the other side. When I went to talk to the principal, they said they were going to handle it, they would call on the student who was bullying, but the bullying kept on. So then what happened? I changed schools and so thank God they were able to graduate.

Arabelly: In regards to bullying, I’ve always thought those kids who do the bullying are doing it because they are not getting enough attention and love at home. So I always tell my son to treat those who try to do harm to him kindly. They’re doing it because they’re not feeling well, so they want everyone else to feel badly as well.

Carmen: I think Reading High needs to divide up the amount of students it has in one building. Even if the building is huge and has the structural capacity to hold that many students, I still think students should be divided according to a system, maybe according to level. Those who have a history of violence should be flagged and put in a group apart…I don’t know. This is just giving me my modest opinion amid my ignorance.

The moms all agreed parents have to be part of the solution.

Candy: These are issues of safety and bullying are things we have to work on–parents and teachers, with the help of the district. Because like my comrade said here, this is not just something teachers in school have to deal with. We as parents have to involve ourselves more so our children can have a better education. Sometimes it’s hard because some parents work two or three different jobs.

Carmen: Let’s not see our children with parents’ eyes. Because when we see our children as our children, we see them with loving eyes, with motherly eyes, and we overlook the defects. Let’s identify that, if the kid is having learning problems or has been violent lately, that they’re getting mad easily…All of those things add up and, at some point, you have to tell yourself that your child needs help. And the district offers those types of support.

Candy: The root problem is that we have to educate parents better, but it’s work that happens gradually and the district has been progressing. Not all of them are going to want to do the work, there’s laziness. There’s someone who don’t care or don’t have time. But there are some of us who want to raise our children in this society – which moves so rapidly – ​​with good values ​​and habits.

That was Carmen Veras, Arabelly Leon, Candy Rojas and Sandra Cruz in Reading.

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