As a deputy commissioner for the New York State Education Department, Angelica Infante-Green is making a difference in the critical areas of special education and bilingual education for students all across the state. And as a parent, she helped create the nation’s first dual language program for children with autism after being frustrated with the barriers she faced in finding the education she wanted for her son. She started her career as a teacher in New York City and she is currently part of the first class of Future Chiefs with the Chiefs for Change organization.
What gets you going in the morning? Are you a coffee drinker? Tea?
We’re an early-morning family. My son is in special education, so the bus picks him up at 6:30 a.m. though his school doesn’t start until 8:00 a.m. He also has a lot of allergies, so he has to eat breakfast at home before the bus comes, and we have to send him to school with a packed lunch. That’s what gets me going in the morning.
I’m a tea drinker. Tea is usually bought on my way to work, wherever I can find a Starbucks. I also drink two glasses of water first thing every morning religiously.
The reality is that my work drives me every day.
Talk about your education and family background and how it has shaped your career.
I was lucky enough to go to public school in New York City. We lived on the edge of two very different neighborhoods. If you didn’t have money, you went to a school down the hill. And the kids whose families had money went to another school up the hill. Once my parents understood the difference between the two schools—that the school “up the hill” could provide many more opportunities—they did everything in their power to get me into the better school.
It’s common in the Latino community that girls have to do a lot of work around the house in addition to going to school, but my parents never had me do that. They placed a high value on education, and their expectations of me were to focus on school and get good grades.
So beginning in middle school, I got a well-rounded education where instruction was solid, the arts were alive, and expectations were high. I had the chance to go to a specialized high school for math and science, which led me to major in architecture in college. I didn’t become an architect though; I joined Teach For America and became a teacher, and I’ve never looked back.
You talk eloquently in this interview about how your experiences as a parent have driven your work. Would you share some of that here? Are you happy with the education your son is getting now?
I’ve always had a passion for equity because of my own experience. I know firsthand what it’s like to be in a school where there isn’t much support and expectations are low. If I didn’t have the chance to change schools, I don’t know how I would have ended up. So I work to make sure all kids have the opportunity to thrive.
As a parent, my kids are different. My son is autistic, and my daughter is incredibly articulate, so they are at different ends of a spectrum. What do a child with special needs and one who is above grade level need to thrive? We have to make sure that all kids thrive. That really drives me as a parent and in my work. The solution has to be an equitable, differentiated education for all kids. We don’t want our son in a separate district or school; we want inclusion.
I am happy with the education he’s getting now. It’s good, but as an educator I will always say that it can be better. We are lucky enough to have our son in the first dual language inclusion program for autistic children in the nation. We are lucky, but many others do not have the same opportunity. My goal is that there will be more programs like that for all kids and not just for the lucky few.
What are the areas of both bilingual and special education that have improved the most? And what areas still need the most improvement?
The inclusion of students with special needs in the mainstream classroom has changed how everyone sees and educates them. They are no longer “those kids” who can only be educated by, and are only the responsibility of, a few. They are now the responsibility of everyone. Teachers are very smart and resourceful professionals, who, when faced with diverse student needs, rise to the challenge.
English-language learners/multilingual learners are now the responsibility of all educators in the building, not just the bilingual teachers. Students are getting the differentiation and supports that are required for their success. Another major advancement is that the community understands the importance of being bilingual and is working toward ensuring that more bilingual programs are available. Schools are using the student’s home language in order to effectively teach them English.
It’s less of a deficit model and more about enrichment; it’s something all parents want and not all about remediation.
It’s no secret that higher education could be doing a better job of preparing educators. Educators crave the knowledge and skills that would allow them to differentiate supports for students, but not all educators enter the classroom with the tools to do it. Teachers still struggle to meet the needs of English-language learners and differently abled students. Bilingual programs nationwide still lack resources. Some districts see it as a luxury and not a necessity, but it absolutely is a necessity for many of our kids.
How did you celebrate the holidays with your family? Any New Year’s resolutions?
I’m Latina, and my husband is from Barbados. On Christmas Eve, a relative dresses up as Santa Claus and gives gifts to the kids. On Christmas Day, we get together again with family and celebrate. We also just celebrated Three Kings Day, and I was honored to be chosen as a Madrina (Godmother) of the Three Kings Day Parade organized by El Museo del Barrio for demonstrating meaningful service and commitment to Latino communities throughout New York City.
After all that celebration, my first New Year’s resolution is to drink a lot of water—not to lose weight, just to be hydrated! Another resolution is to say no without feeling guilty. I want to find more balance in my life and be sure not to short change time with my family.
Lastly, I resolve to be very grateful. We lost a lot of young family and friends last year, so I’m committed to finding things to be grateful for, even in hard times. I’ll be grateful to continue to do this work as long as I can see that it’s impacting the kids that people don’t always pay enough attention to.