Hispanic students find fun, support with club

Ritmo Latino offers friendship and learning

December 17, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Maria Camacho, 13, an eighth-grader at Oakland Mills Middle School, was born in New York City, but did not speak English until she was 5 years old, she said. Her Dominican mother and Puerto Rican father spoke Spanish at home so that is what Maria learned.

After moving to Maryland and enrolling at school, she joined Ritmo Latino, a club for Hispanic students. This is her third year as a member of the club, which meets Wednesdays after school. She has made a lot of friends in the group, she said, and she has especially enjoyed the guest speakers, who talk about their careers.

"They get you thinking about what you want to be," said Maria, who hopes to be a fashion designer some day.

Last week, Maria and about 30 other students - along with teachers and parents - enjoyed a feast of rice and beans, enchiladas, taquitos and other dishes they had brought from home.

The meal, which took place in the cafeteria at the end of the school day, had several purposes. It allowed the students to test recipes for a cookbook they plan to make, and it also gave them an opportunity to connect with the United Way of Central Maryland, which was looking for volunteer opportunities for a group called WINGS (Women's Initiative Next Generations).

Four Howard County women from WINGS handed out gifts and helped students decorate holiday stockings they could take home. They also brought in desserts and planned to help the students make their cookbook a reality.

Rachel Miller, assistant regional director for the local United Way, explained that WINGS had been looking for a project in the schools and contacted officials with FIRN, the referral service for foreign-born Howard County residents, for ideas.

Miller said the United Way was interested in working with a middle school because "they just do not always get the same level of attention."

Glenyss Ryan, the coordinator of FIRN's Club LEAP (Learning English After-school Program), suggested that the United Way get involve with her program.

About a dozen schools in the county offer LEAP clubs, said Ryan.

"The focus is specifically in giving the students the opportunity to practice their English in an upbeat, comfortable atmosphere," she said, adding that volunteer tutors make it possible.

Meanwhile, Oakland Mills counselor Roberta Shawver started the club, which students dubbed Ritmo Latino ("Latin Rhythm") four years ago, responding to a surge in the Spanish-speaking population at Oakland Mills, she said.

"I basically saw children wandering around the school, being disenfranchised," she said. Students who struggled with English often avoided school activities because they felt uncomfortable or did not know how to join, she said. Ritmo Latino was designed to change that.

This year, the club has 38 students from 10 countries. One highlight of the club is the speakers, generally Hispanic, who talk to the students about their careers. Students also get academic support and participate in projects, like creating the cookbook.

It seemed natural to combine the two school groups, which have some of the same children, for the after-school meal and craft session, Shawver said. Ryan said she hopes to strengthen the connection between Club LEAP and the United Way.

As Latin music played, the students lined up to pile their paper plates with dishes that included rice and beans from Puerto Rico, brought in by Jessica Rivera; enchiladas from Mexico, brought in by Estrella Mendez; and taquitos from Honduras, brought in by Pamela Quiroga.

Malak Soussi, 14, an eighth-grader at Oakland Mills, was born in Morocco and could speak Spanish and Moroccan, but not English, when she started kindergarten. Once she learned English, she said, she lost some of her ability to speak Spanish.

Now, thanks to Ritma Latino, she can practice her Spanish with others who speak the language. "It was somewhere where I could talk to my friends," she said.

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