Eighth graders at DelSesto Middle School in Providence celebrated Hispanic Heritage month this week with an assembly of high-profile Latino leaders – including city Mayor Jorge Elorza. At a cafeteria assembly, around 100 eighth graders heard from Elorza and others, including Marcela Betancur, director of the Latino Policy Institute who emigrated from Colombia to the U.S. in middle school.

“I would tell eighth grade Marcela, that having an accent just means that your brain is so amazing, because your brain gets to think in two different languages,” Betancur told the students.

Most of the students at DelSesto identify as Latino, but as is the case across the district, most of the teachers identify as white.

Assistant Principal Rebeca Filomeno is one of the few administrators who identify as Latina.

“When I walk around the building I speak English and Spanish,” Filomeno said. “So that they understand and know that I acknowledge and appreciate and love their language both languages. It’s also for me important to make sure I connect with students that don’t speak English or Spanish and have a different language.”

In the absence of teachers of color, schools are still working to make sure students see themselves reflected in the role models around them. 

“For us diversifying the staff is something that we continue to work on,” said Filomeno. “And helping teachers that maybe don’t identify as Latinx or black or brown, that they feel like they have some strategies to help the students that are in front of them.”

Filomeno says a small group of teachers have received training to be culturally aware of their students’ backgrounds, and plans to expand the training this year. As the city deals with a shortage of teachers, leaders at DelSesto say they’re working to make sure new hires reflect the diversity of their students.

Correction: a previous version of this story misspelled Rebeca Filomeno's name. The error has been corrected.