City's Hispanic students get one-on-one attention Tutorial program fosters self-esteem

January 04, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Sitting with her tutor, 12-year-old Arelis Lugo zipped through reading a children's version of "Beauty and the Beast." Then she confidently tackled a work sheet on suffixes.

Not bad for an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who came to the United States only 16 months ago speaking absolutely no English.

Now the sixth-grader at Southeast Middle School sets her sights high: "I have to go to college," she said.

Arelis' confidence has blossomed partly due to the extra help she gets at a Saturday morning tutorial program run by the East Baltimore Latino Organization (EBLO).

Up to 43 Hispanic children, kindergartners through seventh graders, huddle with tutors Saturdays in the basement of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Evangelists in Canton.

The students live scattered throughout Southeast Baltimore, from Fells Point to O'Donnell Heights. Many speak Spanish at home with parents who are Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican, Cuban or Salvadoran, among other nationalities.

On Saturday mornings the children get the one-on-one attention that their schools often don't have the time, nor their parents the English language skills, to give them.

Around the room is the low hum of work getting done.

Ivelisse Torres, a second-grader at General Wolfe Elementary School, reads aloud, plowing through English sentences. She hits an obstacle and stalls until her tutor nudges her forward. Then she reads on, cutting a fresh furrow across the page.

Jose Sabastro, 7, who lives with his Puerto Rican parents near Patterson Park, is intent on perfecting his cursive "e." His head stays down, inches above the table, as he makes the little loop again and again.

Jose's tutor is Dan Lopez, a federal government employee whose parents are Peruvian. Mr. Lopez, who spoke Spanish at home as a child, recalled his own problems at school.

"I didn't speak English until the first or second grade, and they put me in slow groups," he said. "Then I stopped speaking Spanish until I got to high school and realized it was an asset. I was ashamed of it.

"Now I can tell the little kids, 'Don't stop your Spanish,' " Mr. Lopez said.

The problems of Latino children in U.S. schools are well-known. Hispanic dropout rates are nearly triple the national average, studies show, no better than they were two decades ago. Hispanic children are also the least likely to attend preschool and kindergarten programs.

The annual dropout rate for Hispanics in Baltimore high schools was nearly 19 percent in the 1991-1992 school year, higher than that of blacks or non-Hispanic whites.

In Maryland last year, only 80 percent of Hispanic 11th-graders passed all the Maryland functional tests needed for graduation -- the poorest performance of any minority group.

What's worse, city educators don't even know how many Hispanic students with special language needs are in the Baltimore schools.

Jose Torres, coordinator of the city schools' new Office of Special Populations, said the school system will survey every student Jan. 11 to find out how many speak a foreign language at home. The survey will be in five languages -- Spanish, Chinese, Greek, Korean and Russian.

A dozen instructors now teach English as a Second Language to about 350 students citywide. But Mr. Torres said the real demand for language help could range from 800 to 3,000 students.

The 1990 census was ambiguous, at best, at numbering the city's Hispanic population. The census counted 7,600 Hispanics in Baltimore, including 1,300 school-age children. But at the same time, a census sample survey found that more than 12,000 city residents speak Spanish at home, including nearly 500 school-age children who speak English poorly.

Jose Ruiz, president of the East Baltimore Latino Organization, said more Hispanic children need help than his group has the money to serve. EBLO has targeted its eight-year-old tutorial program at young children only because it doesn't have the funds to help older students, too.

EBLO spends $4,000 a year on the Saturday morning program, including round-trip bus transportation for the children, Mr. Ruiz said. The money comes from EBLO's annual Latino Festival at Fells Point and a grant from the William Donald Schaefer Civic Fund.

Diana Carrion, EBLO's education coordinator, worries about how many Hispanic children fall through the cracks in city schools -- especially those whose parents find English an insurmountable barrier in dealing with educators.

For example, EBLO tutors discovered that one fifth-grader couldn't read, she recalled. But the principal of the boy's school assured EBLO that the child was getting remedial help.

"It turned out that what he was referring to was our own program," said Ms. Carrion, adding that the boy didn't get special help in school until a member of the mayor's staff intervened.

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