Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools says nearly 17,000 of its students have only a limited grasp of English, and more than twice that many speak a language other than English at home.
Most of those students were born in the United States, but their parents weren’t.
And therein lies the reason a growing number of nonprofits in the city are starting bilingual programs to prepare immigrant preschoolers for CMS, despite the insistence of some critics that bilingual education makes it easier for such children to avoid learning English.
Among the most innovative programs is one starting in the fall, when the Charlotte nonprofit La Escuelita at Church of the Holy Comforter will launch a Spanish-English immersion program for preschoolers. Spanish-speaking and English-speaking preschoolers will learn together in the school, which will teach in both languages.
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Another example was launched in January, when Charlotte Bilingual Preschool started Creciendo Juntos (Growing Together), a series of parenting classes for Latinos whose children are too young for preschool (infancy to 35 months).
Literacy and socialization skills for immigrant children are chief among the goals, but the program is also working to bring Latino parents out of the shadows and into the broader community. In doing so, Creciendo Juntos intends to prepare them for the challenges of an English-speaking school system.
Joanne Stratton Tate, head of Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, says the program is needed to deal with the growing number of Latino parents seeking to enroll children in the school, which has room for only 108 students.
“We continue to be burdened with a long waiting list, even after we doubled in size (last fall). We just don’t have enough space,” said Tate, noting that 100 students are on the waiting list.
“What we decided to do was … try reaching the parents of younger children on the waiting list and introduce them to the notion that they are the first teachers, and home is the first classroom. We have them bring the children with them to show them how to do it.”
Mecklenburg County’s Latino population surged about 15 percent between 2010 and 2014, more than twice as quickly as its white population grew. Latinos now make up 13 percent of the county and 21 percent of the school system.
Charlotte-area programs to prepare those children for CMS have grown to more than a dozen in recent years, including bilingual preschools in Huntersville and Cornelius.
It’s still not enough, say experts.
Latino parents are so desperate for preschool options that a Spanish immersion program for English-speaking preschoolers at the Harris YMCA is now populated by a growing number of Latino children. YMCA officials believe the mix is helping the English-speaking children learn Spanish faster.
Creciendo Juntos is similar in many ways to another YMCA program called Parents as Teachers. It is open to all nationalities but has become increasingly popular with Latinos. However, unlike the bilingual preschool, the YMCA sends counselors into the homes of low-income Latino parents, whose lack of English skills often keep them from venturing out in the community.
Tate says many of the parents who signed up for Creciendo Juntos are initially shy about contact with the world outside their family. Part of this is fear of the unknown, but lack of money and transportation are also problems, she says.
Another common factor: Some are not legally in the country and fear being arrested for deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s a chief reason programs catering to such families remain controversial, though charity leaders are defiant in offering help to those in need.
Iris Navarro of Charlotte is among the parents in Creciendo Juntos who speak English. She is also an example of the challenges faced by the children of immigrants. Navarro, 27, was born in the United States but raised by parents from Central America who spoke only Spanish.
Navarro’s two children, ages 2 and 5, have been raised similarly. Navarro’s Colombia-born mother lives with the family and is a key caregiver.
“I was lucky enough to have gone to a bilingual preschool (in New York), and I want the same for my children. I want them to be bilingual,” says Navarro, whose oldest daughter was admitted to the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool. “She was speaking English the first week. Now, she’s talking about being a doctor or a veterinarian.”
In cases where children don’t have the benefit of a bilingual preschool, CMS has its English as a Second Language program. For the 2014-2015 school year, 2,327 students exited that program after tests showed they had become proficient in English.
Lauren Cavins, executive director of La Escuelita, says the community can’t afford to ignore the issue, because a price will eventually be paid in more high school dropouts. In 2015, the CMS graduation rate for Latino students was 79.4 percent, compared with 93.7 percent for white students, 92 percent for Asian students and 86.5 percent for black students.
“These children are at a disadvantage from the first day they walk into a school,” Cavins said. “They can’t communicate with the teacher, and the teacher can’t communicate with them. That doesn’t end well.”
How to help
To donate to the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, visit www.bilingualpreschool.org and click on Donate, or mail a check to: Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, 6300 Highland Ave., Charlotte, NC 28215.