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Latino student boom: Big numbers pose complex questions for CMS

Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, now housed at Hickory Grove Elementary School, helps children become fluent in English and Spanish.
Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, now housed at Hickory Grove Elementary School, helps children become fluent in English and Spanish. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

If you think you understand what the Latino enrollment boom means for Charlotte-area schools, you’re probably wrong.

That’s what I took away from this week’s forum on Latinos and education at the Levine Museum of the New South, where speakers explored the complexities of language, culture and identity that are often lumped into simple labels.

You might know the numbers: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has roughly 32,000 students classified as Hispanic/Latino, a number that has continued to swell even as other enrollment slows. About 25,600 come from homes where Spanish is the primary language (Vietnamese is a distant second with almost 1,100).

As Tuesday’s speakers pointed out, Mexican Spanish isn’t exactly the same language as Colombian Spanish or Cuban Spanish. And while a surge of immigration in the 1990s pushed Charlotte’s Latino population into the awareness of the broader community, much of the growth now comes from American-born children of immigrants.

So “Latino” is a label that encompasses students who speak only English, students who speak only Spanish and many who speak at least a bit of both.

Developing bilinguals

Developing full fluency in both languages – as well as roots in two cultures – should be the goal, three UNC Charlotte professors said.

“We frame Latinos in school as English language learners. They’re not English language learners. They’re bilinguals,” said Spencer Salas, who studies the increasing Latino presence in K-12 schools and the implications for public policy.

Adriana Medina, who specializes in reading instruction for students learning English, said the stronger a child’s skill in the home language is, the better he or she will acquire a second one. And remaining fluent in Spanish helps children maintain the support of their extended family, said Medina, who was born in Miami to Cuban parents.

“Sometimes parents forget the value of bilingualism,” added Paola Pilonieta, who was born in Colombia and specializes in reading instruction. “It makes you more marketable. ... It helps you appreciate different cultures.”

Pilonieta said she’s raising her 21-month-old son to speak Spanish at home. She said she’s struggling as she looks for a preschool, because she doesn’t want him to lose his Spanish or go to kindergarten knowing no English. She has found some bilingual preschool options, she said, as well as CMS magnets that teach students in both languages. But she said the city needs more schools that help children develop strong language skills in two tongues.

Pilonieta said she was pleasantly surprised to discover that her son has competition for those bilingual preschools – from “white English-speaking children” whose parents value Spanish fluency.

Reaching parents

I recently visited Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, a nonprofit program that moved from a church into CMS’ Hickory Grove Elementary this year. The move let the preschool expand from 72 children to 108, and in January it added a program for infants and toddlers and their parents.

The school, which serves only Spanish-speaking low-income families, charges a modest $700 a year and has a waiting list based on word-of-mouth. Students alternate days learning in English and Spanish, and all teachers can speak both languages, said Head of School Joanna Stratton Tate.

Tate said earning parents’ trust and making them feel at home is a vital part of helping children learn what they’ll need to succeed in school. The preschool expects parents to volunteer in class and works to get them acquainted with roles that might not exist in their home countries, such as serving as a room parent.

Trust between families and faculty is a hallmark of schools that succeed with Latino students, said José Hernández-París, executive director of Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition and a speaker at the Museum of the New South forum. Hernández-París was diversity specialist for CMS before switching jobs at the end of 2015.

After the forum, I asked him what to make of the fact that some of the district’s most successful high-poverty neighborhood schools, such as Berryhill preK-8 school and Windsor Park Elementary, are majority Latino. He gives credit to principals and teachers who connect with families in ways that are neither condescending nor intimidating.

At the same time, he said, a general anti-immigrant climate in North Carolina is making many Spanish-speaking families more wary of all institutions, including CMS, even as district leaders try to engage parents in such key decisions as student assignment changes and a superintendent search.

Sense of belonging

That climate also complicates the challenge that students face in finding a sense of identity.

Medina, the mother of an adolescent son, said feeling connected to one’s school and peers is crucial to keeping students motivated. But Hernández-París said older students are well aware of deportations and public hostility toward immigrants.

The CMS school board has spent most of a year talking about student assignment, diversity and the challenges facing high-poverty, racially isolated schools. Black and white officials and parents have been vocal, but the Latino voice has mostly been missing.

In remarks during and after the forum, Hernández-París talked about how complex those issues can be for Spanish-speaking students and families.

He noted that some schools are so overwhelmingly populated by students from low-income Spanish-speaking homes that they miss the chance to learn English from classmates. Even though they’re taught in English, he said, they’re less likely to develop the fluency that opens doors in an English-speaking culture.

Yet change can also be wrenching. Hernández-París came to Charlotte from Colombia at 13. He didn’t want to be here, he said, but he eventually bonded with classmates and teachers at Myers Park High. He was traumatized, he said, when he was reassigned to West Charlotte High as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan.

Like I said: If you think you’ve got this all figured out, you’re probably just starting to scratch the surface.

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