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The Baltimore Sun

A Growing Latino Population Brings New Education Needs

By Liz Bowie

8 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Baltimore Sun. All rights reserved. 

In Patricia O'Neill's first-grade classroom, there has been a cultural turnabout - African-American and white children have become the minority, and they're the ones doing their best to assimilate.

"They say, 'I can speak Spanish, too,'" O'Neill said.

Of the 22 pupils in her class at General Wolfe Elementary, 18 are of Hispanic descent learning to speak English. And the Upper Fells Point school is the first Baltimore school in decades to have a majority Hispanic population.

With the arrival of a wave of young immigrants, the face of Baltimore - long thought of racially as black and white - has been changing in the past several years, perhaps faster than census or official population figures indicate.

Although the state Department of Planning estimates that 11,621 Hispanics live in the city, those who work with Latinos say they believe the population is more likely 20,000 to 25,000.

Schools are one of the few places where such trends can be more accurately quantified because illegal immigrants have the right to register children without a Social Security number and without fear that the information they supply school staff will lead to deportation.

The number of Baltimore students with immigrant parents has doubled since 2000, increasing to about 1,500 this year, according to Jill Basye-Featherston, who is head of a school system program for those students.

General Wolfe, in the heart of the city's Latino community, is a small elementary school with 210 pupils, 69 percent of whom are Hispanic. However, signs of a growing immigrant school population are showing up elsewhere - from Highlandtown in the eastern part of the city to Brooklyn at the southern tip to Northeast Baltimore. At Patterson High School in East Baltimore, students are natives of more than 30 countries. And at Maree Garnett Farring Elementary School in Brooklyn, the presence of immigrant pupils has grown from a handful to more than 40, or about 12 percent of the school, in the past five years.

"It is wonderful. People aren't realizing what has been happening," said Thomas Stroschein, Farring's principal.

While decades ago a well-educated Hispanic population came and melded into the city's middle-class neighborhoods, today's immigrants are far different, said Carmen Nieves, executive director of Centro de la Comunidad, a Latino community center. The majority, she said, are young, poor and from rural areas.

They come to Baltimore for the inexpensive, available housing, helping to stabilize neighborhoods by renting houses that might otherwise go vacant, Nieves said. City schools should be prepared, she said, for enrollment increases in four years because of a boom in births among Latino mothers at area hospitals.\

Keeping pace

Baltimore may be one of the last major urban areas without a substantial Hispanic population, but as that begins to change, the school system is trying to keep pace.

In many of the schools with increasing immigrant populations, principals and the staff have accommodated the new students as best they can with limited resources, said Basye-Featherston, who oversees services for children learning to speak English - a program referred to as English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL. Baltimore has 48 ESOL teachers working in schools across the city, but Basye-Featherston said that the system needs more and that she is trying to hire at least one more teacher.

The system must also do more to help ESOL students in other ways, she said, including providing more bilingual staff to help teachers and principals communicate with Spanish-speaking parents and making sure the information passed out to parents is in English and Spanish.

And training is needed for staff and students to heighten sensitivity to cultural differences, Basye-Featherston said, particularly regarding Muslim children whose dress differs from other students'.

Learning complications

In classrooms like O'Neill's at General Wolfe, the challenges are great. Teaching children to read is a daunting enough task, but O'Neill is faced with instructing first-graders to speak and read in their second language.

As O'Neill gathered her first-grade reading group around her in a corner of a classroom to sound out words, she held up the word hat, pronounced it and then flipped down a picture she had drawn of a hat - to make sure those who do not speak English would associate the word with the picture.

In her reading group of seven children, four are Hispanic, two are black and one is white - a diversity rarely found in Baltimore schools.

"The hardest thing is that they will be tested in March," O'Neill said.

Immigrant children who start school in the earliest grades become fluent in English in a year or two and quickly leave the ESOL program, General Wolfe teachers say. Older children, however, can take longer.

Among the complications of educating non-English-speaking students is diagnosing learning difficulties.

Despite the challenges, ethnic diversity has been an asset at General Wolfe, said ESOL teacher Jennifer Catlin Hirt. The children seem to accept one another and learn from their differences. Each fall around Thanksgiving, the school holds an international feast with food made and brought in by parents for the children to share.

Constantino Melgarejo, the father of a second- and a third-grader at General Wolfe, said the school is getting better, although he is critical of some teachers who, he says, "don't put their heart into it."

Melgarejo, who works in the restaurant business, said Upper Fells Point is a good neighborhood for Hispanic families because it is close to downtown.

Of the 1,100 students designated for the ESOL program, about half come from Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and Honduras, Basye-Featherston said. But there are also dozens of other immigrants, some who are refugees, from countries such as Somalia, Liberia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Iraq.\

Greater needs

Stroschein, Farring's principal, said the immigrants' needs are so great that in some cases, his staff extends help that goes beyond what a school normally provides.

When a pregnant mother showed up one day to register her five children for school, the staff worked hard to make sure every child was in school the next day - and that the woman saw a doctor. Farring, like Patterson High, has an active Latino parent group designed to help parents deal with a variety of issues.

Last year at Farring, the Latino parents gathered to talk about child rearing and health issues, and they have helped paint the school.

If the ESOL program receives more money as the population of immigrant students increases, Basye-Featherston said, she would like to create a "newcomer center" to serve middle and high school students in their first year in the system. Those students, she said, have more difficulty catching up with their classmates.

Those students might not have had many years of formal education in their home country, so they need time to learn English and make up ground academically before moving into a regular school, she said.

However, once on track, immigrant students have shown they can succeed. At Farring, Hispanic students are outscoring their white and black counterparts in the Maryland School Assessment tests by the time they get to the fifth grade. And Southwestern High School has had an immigrant student as a valedictorian and salutatorian in the past several years.

"I have always said the future of the city will rest on immigrants," Nieves said.

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