Denisa Gándara, assistant professor of higher education at SMU, is one of 13 scholars who has been awarded a research grant as part of the Latino Center for Leadership and Development (LCLD) and the Tower Center for Political Studies research partnership.
The grant program was established to provide meaningful research geared to promoting a stronger understanding of the Latino community and creating a dialogue about key societal issues.
“The issuing of these grants marks the beginning of a new approach to policy and research related to the Latino community,” said Miguel Solis, president of the Latino CLD.
The awards were chosen by the research grant advisory board made up of Solis, Tower Center Academic Director Jim Hollifield, and Tower Center Postdoctoral Fellows Alicia Reyes-Barriéntez and Aileen Cardona Arroyo.
“Denisa is already doing excellent work,” Reyes-Barriéntez said. “She is a young scholar with an exciting future at SMU, and we are excited that she will form part of our research partnership.”
Gándara’s research will look at college access for English learners (ELs) in the state of Texas. Coming from a small border town near Brownsville, the issue resonates with her childhood.
“I was an English learner myself,” she said. “I knew a few people who were English learners all the way through high school.”
In Texas only 8 percent of ELs graduate from high school college-ready.
“Even in schools where a lot of graduates go onto college, that’s not the case for English learners, so it seems they’re not benefiting from that college-going culture and that could be because they’re segregated,” Gándara said.
Texas’s higher education plan calls for almost doubling the percent of the population that has a postsecondary degree or credential. “It’s a big goal,” Gándara said.
Gándara thinks one of the reasons the state still has so far to go is that ELs have been neglected when considering policy change. She hopes her research will help fill in that gap.
“Denisa’s research is more relevant today than it has ever been,” Solis said. “Ensuring that policy makers and the public understand issues related to English language learners and can enact solutions to address those issues will be critical to ensuring our nation’s success.”
Rather than looking at student factors, she plans to focus her research on the structural barriers at both the school level and district level. She wants to explore what is working well for the students and identify areas that could be improved.
Gándara expects to produce two papers over two years for the project. She says she is especially excited about the focus of the Latino CLD- Tower Center partnership to merge scholarship with focus.
“I don’t always have the opportunity to translate my research into policy, so I think the LCLD and the Tower Center are both uniquely positioned to be able to use the findings of my research because they work directly with leaders and prospective elected officials,” she said.
“We want for research to inform practice and policy,” Reyes-Barriéntez said. “That’s what we value.”
Read more on the timeliness of Gándara’s research in the Dallas Morning News here.