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The Plain Dealer

With Latinos Now Largest Minority, Language Emerges As Issue

Michael Scott; Plain Dealer Reporter

May 17, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

In the half-century since the U.S. Supreme Court declared the racial segregation of America's schools unconstitutional, Latinos have surpassed African-Americans as the nation's largest minority group.

That trend is making language not race alone a pivotal point in the continuing drive for equal access to education.

"It's a population shift with consequences everywhere in cities, suburbs and in rural areas but especially for schools because it's a language matter that complicates the educational process," said Chungmei Lee of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Lee and other researchers say that one in four American high school students will be Latino within 20 years.

Two Northeast Ohio school districts are already there: Latinos make up more than 25 percent of the Lorain and Painesville city schools.

While the Cleveland School District is only 9 percent Latino, it is home to two schools with the highest percentage of Latinos in the area. Luis Munoz Marin Middle School, on the near West Side, is more than 69 percent Latino and was renamed in 1999 to honor the first elected governor of Puerto Rico. Nearby Lincoln West High is 46 percent Latino.

The schools in Lorain, Painesville and Cleveland use a combination of after-school and summer language programs, tutors, classroom aides and bilingual teachers to try to bridge the language gap for struggling students with mixed success.

"We'd all love to have bilingual teachers in every classroom, but we don't have those kind of resources and probably never will," said Pablo Bigio, Lorain's bilingual education coordinator. "We try to use whatever methods we can to accommodate language differences."

Bilingual education is not an issue in most of Ohio's 600-plus school districts. The vast majority have an enrollment that is less than 1 percent Latino.

Harvard's Lee contends that disparity is segregation, whether intentional or not.

"Basically, schools that have the highest concentration of minorities also have the highest number of poor that's the bottom line," Lee said. "This hasn't been good for Latinos."

Lincoln West High, where the entire 1,400-student enrollment is designated as "economically disadvantaged," has been placed on academic watch by the Ohio Department of Education. That's only one step away from the lowest of five state rankings.

Harvey High in Painesville, where nearly 60 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, is also on academic watch.

Researchers say poor economic conditions are linked to poor academic results:

Latinos have the lowest high school graduation and college enrollment rates and the highest dropout rates in the country.

Only 17 percent of Latino fourth-graders nationally can read English at their grade level.

More than three-fourths of the 3.5 million students in America classified as "limited English proficient," or LEP, are Latino.

Educators in Lorain, home to a large, well-established Puerto Rican community, have been wrestling with those issues for more than 30 years.

Watching an afternoon class change at Southview High in Lorain is like watching the proverbial melting pot spill out into the cafeteria.

Statistically, they're 42 percent Latino, 33 percent Caucasian, 18 percent African-American and 8 percent multiracial. But collectively, they're 100 percent teenagers, talking, laughing, flirting and fighting.

"We've always had a significant Hispanic population and we've tried to put together a program that moves the new student from his native language gently, but quickly, into mainstream English," Bigio said. "It's something we've been used to doing for a long time."

But in Painesville, educators are still trying to catch up to exploding Latino enrollment. It's a demographic shift driven mostly by a migrant Mexican work force lured to the Lake County area by plentiful vineyard and landscaping jobs.

"They came to me in 1991 and asked me to set up a bilingual program because they had 13 kids that they didn't know what to do with," said Virginia Aleman Hoose, Painesville's bilingual coordinator and the daughter of migrant Mexican workers.

Now there are more than 750 Latino students in the 2,700-student district. Nearly 17 percent of the enrollment is classified as LEP. Hoose said many of those students move into the district in the upper grades and have little time to learn a new language.

Harvey High bilingual teacher David Klingenberg said it can take more than five years longer for a second-language student to become proficient at academic language than at social language.

"You might hear a Spanish-speaking student keep up OK with his friends in the hallway, but ask him to tell you about the Civil War in class and he's sometimes unable to put it together."

Senior Jorge Sanchez said he and other Latinos are afraid they will not pass the writing portion of the state-required proficiency test.

"They [Spanish-speaking aides] help us, but it's still hard to remember everything and sometimes on the test, we don't know what to do," he said.

Harvey High's state test numbers bear out Sanchez's concern. Only 25 percent of Latino students passed the ninth-grade proficiency test in mathematics on the first try. More than half of the Latino ninth-graders failed four out of the five proficiency test subjects on the first try.

Painesville LEP students in general don't perform as well as their counterparts at Lincoln West and Lorain Southview.

Maria Fontes, bilingual coordinator at Southview, believes Latino students there do better in part because nearly 9 percent of the teachers are of Hispanic descent. Lincoln West has a similar percentage, while Painesville has no Latino teachers.

Test scores appear to support Fontes' argument. LEP students at Southview and Lincoln West performed better than similar students at Painesville in virtually every subject.

"Role models are very important for these students," Fontes said. "We believe it's good, especially for first-year students, to learn from other Latinos."

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