While the population grows, so does awareness of the problems that some Latino communities face. Access to early education, parental involvement, cultural issues, HIV awareness and information gaps that exist in the Latino community are just some of the issues that the Hispanic Directors Association of New Jersey is seeking to tackle in the near future.
The not-for-profit group, based in New Brunswick, acts as social advocates throughout the state. From the streets of Jersey City to the offices of Gov. James McGreevey, the HDA will, over the next few weeks, begin an effort to get legislation introduced to State Legislative that could change the way the state approaches early education and assistance programs that cater to the Hispanic population of New Jersey.
These issues are especially important in Abbott districts, as by definition, Abbott "special needs" districts (state-funded urban districts) contain many of the state's poorest residents, including immigrants. Locally, West New York, Union City, Jersey City and Hoboken get "special needs" funding for their schools.
The legislation was as part of a bill introduced on June 30, 2003 to the state legislature by New Jersey State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark) and State Assemblyman Craig Stanley (D-Irvington) that seeks to clarify the role of community providers within the scope of early childhood education in Abbott districts.
"Community Providers" is a Department of Education term that, according to Daniel Santo Pietro, "covers the full range of people or organizations contracted to school districts. This includes for-profit organizations, not-for-profit organizations such as ours as well as Head Start programs."
The bill, officially numbered A2736, needs to pass through another session in the state legislature before it is voted on, but the backers of the bill are hoping for wide bipartisan support for it.
The bill asks that the State Department of Education, the Department of Human Services and Abbott districts develop a "long-term" relationship with "community providers." It asks that the state recognize the importance of these community providers in their roles as leaders in early childhood education.
An important part of the bill mandates that the state establish five-year renewable contracts with the community providers beginning with the 2004-2005 school year.
Community providers could include day care centers, private tutoring firms like Sylvan, and any other agency or company whose services are contracted by the districts.
Previously, the state had seen fit to only contract with these providers for one-year periods. This, according to HDA officials, had a detrimental effect on the ability for many of these providers to establish good relationships with the children. It also had a negative effect on the relationship between the providers and the state. The state liked these one-year contracts, as it gave them the option to exit from a contract for any given reason.
Said HDA representative Paulina Goldman in a recent interview, "Five-year contracts are very important. They ensure long term relationships between facilities and the state."
Said Santo Pietro, "We want all eligible children to be involved [in pre-school programs] now. Not years from now. There needs to be a clear involvement between schools and the community."
Tough budgetary times
According to HDA Executive Director Daniel Santo Pietro, recent statewide budget cuts have decimated social programs that have been in place for years.
Said Santo Pietro Tuesday, "We've been working closely with the state on many issues. It's very important to have a clear voice. Quite frankly, if it wasn't for the media coverage we've been able to get recently, many of our groups would have been in some trouble, budget-wise. Budget cuts are quite cruel to programs like ours." Santo Pietro added, "The state has traditionally treated our group and groups like ours as 'soft' programs, but we think that they are absolutely essential."
While the "state" is usually portrayed as the antagonist in what seems to be a never ending bureaucratic tug-of-war, there have been apparent olive branches presented by the state. Aside from Dina Matos-McGreevey being the official spokesperson for the HDA, New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey has made education a cornerstone of his administration. He has pledged to keep education programs funded.
However, even though various politicians and policy-makers appear to be in the "community provider" corner, the vast strata of bureaucracy that exists at the state level makes fast, street-level change difficult.
The HDA is a 30-year old organization that includes social advocates throughout the state (from groups such as the Jersey City-based P.A.C.O. - Puerto Rican Community Assistance Organization; the North Hudson Community Action Corporation in West New York; Puerto Rican Family Institute in Jersey City), and is funded by a mix of supporters including the state Department of Human Services, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (which finances many educational initiatives), the Schumann Fund of New Jersey, and membership dues.
They are mainly focused on early childhood education (pre-school) in poorer mainly Hispanic districts. Also on their agenda is the overhanging issue of children becoming proficient at English at a very early age.
There are, however, other issues that the organization seeks to address as it goes forward.
According to HDA documents, in 2000, Latinos accounted for 19 percent of all new HIV/AIDS cases in New Jersey.
Said HDA Director Daniel Santo Pietro, "This is the number one health concern for Latino women. We are concerned that the state needs to orient this initiative to the Latino population. We have to look for answers. Testing and counseling are very important."
Santo Pietro also mentioned an upcoming HIV awareness conference on December 10, 2003, which will include representatives from the state. Details, according to Santo Pietro, are to be released at a later date.
Among other issues the organization wants to tackle in the future is the exploding population of Latinos that are currently incarcerated and the reasons for this; Latinos' access to mental health assistance, and the ability for Latinos to gain easier access to labor opportunities.
Obviously, the HDA has a tall order to fill, but apparently, this 30-year old organization has the ear of Gov. McGreevey.
Said Santo Pietro, "We told the governor, 'These are great (education) programs, but the way you've handled the budgeting wasn't good.' The Commissioner of Education, William Librera, couldn't even argue with me on that. It's got to change and it has to change right away."