Helping Hispanics make the grade

Reaching out to parents, educators strive to keep their children in school

September 22, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Although Dinora Quintanilla is an educated woman in her native El Salvador, when her sixth-grade son Jose Sanchez has trouble with his Wilde Lake Middle School homework, he rarely asks his mother for help.

Knowing how little English she speaks, Jose -- out of respect -- doesn't want to burden her, or worse, embarrass her.

So he goes to school, sometimes without having finished his homework. Through an interpreter, Quintanilla reveals how that worries her.

"If there's not enough help in school," she says, "he could lose interest and fall behind."

There are valid reasons for Quintanilla's concerns. If the 2000 Census statistics are an indication, Jose could end up like 44 percent of Hispanic students in Howard County who drop out of school.

Howard's small but fast-growing Hispanic community presents a challenge to educators in a county obsessed with education. Language and cultural barriers can combine to make education less of a priority.

Many Hispanic parents are hesitant to communicate with teachers. And because of the economic pressure they face, they may value workers more than scholars in the family. Some see advantages to teen-agers dropping out to take a minimum-wage job.

But Hispanics also can see the benefits of education, and Howard educators are working hard to help them and their children be more successful.

That has required innovations including teams of bilingual facilitators and technologies that permit Hispanic parents and children to listen discreetly to translations of school programs.

It's early, but Howard educators see progress.

"The parents are starting to be more involved now," says Rosa Pope, the county's first community outreach liaison, hired to the position in 1998, when the Hispanic student population hit 2 percent and her bilingual skills were recognized as an asset to the system.

Today, the school system reports Hispanic students as being about 3 percent of the student population, and there are seven people with Pope's position, four of them Spanish-speaking. There's talk of hiring another liaison to help with registration next year.

"Over time," Pope says, "we're really starting to see the results of the parent participation."

Because the percentage of Hispanic students is still relatively small compared to other minority groups, it would have been easy for administrators and school staff members to ignore the problem. While African-Americans made up almost 18 percent of the schools last year, and Asians a little more than 10 percent, Hispanics were reported to be 2.9 percent.

Hispanic leaders say the numbers of Hispanic students are grossly underreported and might be double the latest census figures, an estimate that gives more urgency to educators' efforts to reach this "quiet minority."

Generally, Pope and others say, Hispanic parents tend not to call schools with problems or questions. They aren't the ones who volunteer to lead school fund-raisers, and if they speak limited English -- which many, if not most, do -- they shy away from back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences.

"If you don't speak the language, and there's no one there to help you, why would you come?" says Wilde Lake Middle School Principal Brenda Thomas.

That's why the liaisons are important.

They call families and let them know a Spanish-speaking person can help them if needed. They invite them to parent meetings, translate important papers and often act as social workers because Hispanic families might be hard-pressed to find a bilingual representative in other county agencies.

"I personally have taken people to the emergency room to help translate for them," Pope says.

At Wilde Lake Middle School's back-to-school night last week, community liaison Marta Goodman called each of the school's Hispanic families to invite them. Of the 12 who said they would make it, 10 showed -- an impressive percentage, she said.

"Marta does such a great job of bringing them in," Thomas says.

And this year, the county borrowed discreet interpretive equipment from a local Korean church, allowing the families to sit dispersed among the crowd of other Wilde Lake parents and hear Goodman's translations using hand-held remote devices and small earplugs.

Hispanic parents who used the equipment called it perfecto.

"Before, we'd have to sit all in one big group and I'd have to talk loud enough so every one could hear. We stuck out like a sore thumb," Goodman says. "We were trying to find a way to help the parents, rather than sitting in the middle, talking loud and interrupting the other parents. This is ideal."

Superintendent John R. O'Rourke has since agreed to buy the liaisons their own remote translation equipment, Goodman says, despite the expense.

Empowering parents

"Anything we can do to help parents," Pope says. "Before [the liaisons were hired], the kids were translating for the parents, and that didn't empower the parents. This way, the parents feel empowered."

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