State of the Union: Latino Students in the Spotlight

Hi, everyone! While Diane is working away on her text-dependent questions, we wanted to share a few notable points from President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night related to Latino students and ELLs, and chime in on the subsequent reading of the tea leaves. (See more from Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog, as well as the President's extended education remarks from The Washington Post.)

Meet Estiven Rodriguez

First and foremost was the President’s recognition of Estiven Rodriguez, a New York City high school senior (and former ELL) from the Dominican Republic and student at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS). President Obama remarked,

Estiven Rodriguez couldn’t speak a word of English when he moved to New York City at age nine. But last month, thanks to the support of great teachers and an innovative tutoring program, he led a march of his classmates – through a crowd of cheering parents and neighbors – from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications. And this son of a factory worker just found out he’s going to college this fall.

The New York Daily NewsIt was his second recognition of Estiven this month, the first being at the White House College Opportunity Summit recently held in Washington. In both speeches, President Obama mentioned the WHEELS tradition of students parading to the post office to mail their college applications. In his earlier speech, Obama noted that "You would have thought it was the Macy’s parade. But the crowds on the sidewalk were parents and teachers and neighbors. The flags were college pennants." (DNA Info, 1/20/14)

The New York Daily News features a photo of Estiven’s parents watching the President’s speech and reports that he is expecting to attend Dickinson College on a full scholarship in the fall. Estiven credits his success to his hard, painstaking work to learn English, as well as tutoring programs that offered him extra support.


Estiven’s future is bright and represents an intriguing choice by the President to focus on a Latino success story as he prepares to improve college access for low-income students and push for immigration reform.


In addition, although the President didn’t mention him as part of his remarks on immigration, one of First Lady Michelle Obama’s invited guests to the speech was Cristian Avila, a DREAMer who fasted for 22 days on the National Mall in support of immigration reform last fall.

In speaking with CNN, Avila said, "I feel honored and excited to be here. If it wasn't for receiving my Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals last summer, I wouldn't have been able to attend the State of the Union."


DREAMers provide another interesting intersection of issues that are priorities for Obama, including college and career readiness, the cost of higher education, and immigration reform. We may see both Cristian’s and Estiven’s names in the news again!

“Skills for the New Economy”

President Obama’s education policy remarks included a mention of Race to the Top, but not a direct mention of the Common Core State Standards. Education Week’s Alyson Klein notes, “Obama used his speech to mount an indirect defense of the common-core standards and a more spirited, direct defense of the program that spurred states to adopt them: Race to the Top.”

His indirect mentions included descriptions of efforts to prepare “students with skills for the new economy – problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Those of you working with the Common Core will also recognize this reference to the aims of the new standards:

“Some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test. But it’s worth it – and it’s working.”


Did Obama steer clear of the standards for political reasons? Educators and policymakers will continue to listen closely to his language (and his administration’s language) about the standards, as well as any support offered in helping diverse populations meet the standards.

Early Childhood Education

One of the topics given the most attention last night was the President’s push for universal preschool, which he began in last year’s State of the Union, particularly for low-income children. This coincides with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to roll out universal PreK, as well as similar efforts around the country in places like San Antonio.


So far this issue hasn’t made much progress at the federal level, but Obama remarked in his speech that he hopes to move the needle by pulling together “a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.” (Another related federal early childhood issue to follow will be the funding of Head Start, whose sequestration cuts were partially restored in the 2013 December budget deal.)

Bilingual Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Resources

Finally, while this is a different topic than what we generally cover, without a doubt one of the most memorable and moving moments of the evening was the long ovation for Army Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg.

For those of you interested in more information about TBI, concussions, and support for veterans with TBI, see our sister site,, which also includes information about kids and TBI and resources in Spanish on this important topic. If you have any Spanish-speaking families dealing with a loved one's head injury (whether from an accident or sustained during military service), these resources may prove to be very useful.

Closing Thoughts

What did you think of the President’s remarks last night? What else caught your attention?

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