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High School Helps Spanish-Speakers Adjust…Libraries Reach Out To Their Hispanic Patrons

High School Helps Spanish-Speakers Adjust; A Class And An Advocacy Program Are Designed To Fulfill The Academic And Social Needs Of Students At Cherry Hill West.

By Kristen A. Graham, Inquirer Staff Writer

November 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

CHERRY HILL -- Last school year, Lorena Mejia had a roster full of regular classes, no idea what a GPA was, and no knowledge of how to make her desire to go to college a reality.

Now, the poised 17-year-old junior at Cherry Hill High School West is thriving in honors courses, can list leadership seminars on her resume, and knows what to do to catapult herself into the world of higher education.

The difference, she said, is something that started as a class and blossomed into a program to help the district's burgeoning Hispanic population navigate its way through an affluent suburban school district.

"Now I'm pushing myself," Mejia said. "I want to do more, and now I know how to do it."

Reaching out to West's rapidly growing Hispanic population has yielded gains across the board.

As a result of the advocacy program, 64 percent of the more than 70 participating students raised their GPA. Twenty-two students are taking higher-level courses, including Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. Almost every student is involved in extracurricular activities, a marked difference from previous years.

It began when one of Rosario Casiano's students, a native Spanish speaker enrolled in one of her regular Spanish classes, came to the teacher in frustrated tears.

"He said: 'I can't do this. It's so boring,' " she said. "I knew it was time to do something."

Casiano, who has taught world languages in Cherry Hill for six years, has watched as the school's Hispanic population surged from fewer than 20 students in 1998 to more than 70 this year.

She approached West and district administrators, and their enthusiasm inspired her to begin a Spanish for Heritage Speakers class in September 2000. The class, open to students who speak Spanish at home, continues this year. Casiano also has started a Hispanic Student Advocacy Program, which serves all students, not just those in the class.

"It helps your aspirations a lot," student Ruth Rivera said this week during a pause from Casiano's class. "You know if you need help, it'll be there. It helps you not only academically, but socially, and mentally."

Rivera, a 16-year-old junior, said she likes living in the suburbs. But even in a relatively diverse district such as Cherry Hill, looking down a hallway and seeing so many people who have grown up in different circumstances is overwhelming, she said.

The majority of Casiano's students were born elsewhere - either in other U.S. cities or in Hispanic countries - and moved to Cherry Hill recently.

"Here, you learn about being Hispanic in the U.S.," Rivera said of the class and the program. "For the first time, we understand our situation a little better. This is an extra lift."

Damaris Suero, a 16-year-old junior, nodded.

"Before, Hispanics weren't really connected. They didn't know about their community," Suero said.

The academic component is strong, too, students said. They have spoken Spanish all their lives, but many lack skills that would allow effective communication in professional settings.

"Other classes just learn Spanish," 14-year-old freshman Nidia Gonzales said. "We get into more details - learn about our culture, about artists and important people."

Sitting in a room decorated with Salvador Dali prints, student projects, and paper stars dangling from the ceiling, Casiano's students were engaged and polite this week, speaking in easy, rapid Spanish.

Seventeen students laughed, eager to exchange ideas about who would bring what dish and whose parents would attend a Latin culture night in December.

Casiano held up a flyer that would be sent out to families.

"Esta en español y en ingles," she said.

Reaching out to parents is an important part of the advocacy program. In her new role as Hispanic Student Advocate, Casiano regularly calls parents and writes them in Spanish.

When she began phoning parents this summer, she budgeted 20 minutes maximum for each conversation. What she found opened her eyes, she said.

"It ended up being an hour for every call," said Casiano, who earned a master's degree at Villanova University and is studying for her doctorate. "They had all these questions - they wanted to know about the school, about the programs, about who to call for what."

Even with the many successes, Casiano admits there have been trying times.

In her native Puerto Rico, Casiano was trained to teach Spanish to native speakers. When she moved to the United States, she learned how to teach the language to non-Spanish speakers.

So creating her class from scratch was a big leap.

"Many days, it was a disaster," she said. "I was putting all my efforts into Spanish and missing the big picture."

The big picture, she said, was a group of bright, motivated students who did not know how to do many things their peers did easily.

But with the help of her West colleagues and phone calls to teachers in Florida, where programs for heritage speakers are prevalent, she made her way through.

And now, in addition to focusing on the language, students attend workshops on everything from calculating GPAs to giving PowerPoint presentations. The class has traveled to Temple University and will take more trips during the school year.

Organizing such outings helps, but much of her work is listening, Casiano said.

She helped Mejia, for instance, decide to double up in science this year. Mejia is taking French and will sit for the Advanced Placement exam for Spanish.

"The second day of school, she came to me and said: 'Señora, I'm so scared. I don't know if I can do it,' " Casiano said. So she talked to Mejia's teachers, explained her situation, and has watched as Mejia thrived.

It is not about carrying her students, Casiano said. It is about supporting them and showing them the opportunities available to them.

"Only 11 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. have a college degree," Casiano said. "I say: 'Do you want to be part of the 11 percent, or part of the 89 percent?' "

Bilingual Readers; Hampton Libraries Reach Out To Their Hispanic Patrons


December 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Daily Press. All rights reserved.

Anayansi Greaves-Collins peruses one of a number of Spanish-language children's books at the Hampton Library as her children Janessa, 2, and Shayla, 4, take advantage of other items for children in the library.

A selection of children's books written in Spanish are available for checkout at the library's Victoria Boulevard branch. About 175 Spanish- language items for adults and children have been added to the collection.

Staff photo (b&w) by ADRIN SNIDER\ Anayansi Greaves-Collins was born and raised in Panama, and would translate bedtime stories into Spanish to read to her daughters. "Having Spanish books is going to make a world of difference," she said.


"Todos abordo," or "all aboard," 2-year-old Janessa Greaves-Collins blurted out one day.

Her mother, Anayansi Greaves-Collins, swelled with pride. Born and raised in Panama, Greaves-Collins said she has been trying to teach her daughters, Janessa and 4-year-old Shayla, her native language, translating the English words of children's books into Spanish when she reads them bedtime stories.

Many people, including her, know it's important to read to children because it influences their attitudes about reading as adults, Greaves-Collins said.

"But one of the biggest drawbacks is, of course, the language," she said. "Having Spanish books is going to make a world of difference."

Worlds are converging at the Hampton Public Library and its branches, where the children's book, "The Snowy Day," can also be found as "Un Dia De Nieve," and "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" is also "Los Tres Chivitos Gruff." For the first time in the library system's 77-year history, librarians stocked about 22 titles of children's books in Spanish or in Spanish and English this year to meet the city's growing Hispanic population.

The city spent $1,500 for 175 Spanish books, including 12 adult parenting books, a tiny number when compared with the library's collection of 275,746 books, but a significant dent, said Marsha Knox, children's librarian.

"Sometimes the group may be small, but we want to make sure they're not shut out and there are resources for everybody," she said.

About 3 percent of Hampton residents call themselves Hispanic or Latino, and the same percentage say they speak Spanish at home, according to Census 2000. Census numbers show that 724 people ages 5 to 17 speak Spanish at home, compared with 26,273 Hampton children in the same age group.

Knox said the urge to stock shelves with titles such as "Los tres cerditos" ("Three Little Pigs") grew out of a growing group of 10 Hispanic mothers that meet as part of the city's Healthy Families Partnership to learn how to become better parents.

"We said, 'Let's start with these and provide them something that they can use,'" Knox said.

"We believe that parents reading with children is the best insurance that the children will succeed in school."

Cecilia Gonzales, coordinator for Healthy Families child and youth programs, is trying to get the mothers -- who come from countries such as Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and Panama -- to read to their children daily, something she said isn't stressed enough in their native countries.

"I think it's definitely a problem," Gonzales said

Hispanic children were less likely than white or black children to be read to or to visit a library in 1999, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics. They were also less likely to be told a story.

Storytelling, said Perri Klass, medical director of the Reach Out and Read National Center, a nonprofit early literacy program, is an important way to engage children's developing minds, while reading to kids "in any language" fosters a love of books.

Greaves-Collins, the Panamanian mother who also attends the Healthy Families mothers' group, used to buy children's books at yard sales and translate them into Spanish on sheets of paper, which she would tuck in the books and give to Hispanic mothers.

Before that, she used to tell the mothers to pick up any book and pretend to read to the young children, in hopes that the act will leave a lasting imprint.

Now, they may not have to pretend as much.

"One thing about Hispanics, we love to cook," she said. "We love to eat and we love to cook.

"Well, they see mommy in the kitchen and it's one of the things they pick up on. If my kids see me pick up the books more often, that's going to reach them."

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