Helping new arrivals fit in; As Hispanic community grows, communities reach out to children


Misha Callahan gently prods 9-year-old Daniel to focus on the math problems in front of him. "Sit up straight," she tells the boy from El Salvador. His grip on the pencil tightens.

Just before lunch, Callahan asks some Spanish-speaking pupils if they remembered to bring money for a field trip later in the week. "My mother doesn't have any money," one girl says.

Before the school day ends at Germantown Elementary in Annapolis, Callahan finds a ride home for Lucia, reassures a mother that her son is not misbehaving in kindergarten and consults with school staff members about a pupil's repeated absences.

As the school's parent outreach liaison, the Cuban-born Callahan is a trouble-shooter, social worker, mother figure and vital link to the school's Spanish-speaking pupils and their families.

The number of native Spanish speakers at the 456-pupil school has tripled in less than two years to more than 70, making it the only county school with a full-time ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) instructor assigned to it.

Enrollment at Germantown and other Annapolis-area public schools mirrors the city's growing Hispanic community, estimated to be more than 5,000 in a population of 35,000. That is double last year's count, and 10 times what it was a decade ago, Hispanic leaders say.

The demographic changes are reflected in help-wanted signs in Spanish, the formation of a Hispanic advocacy group and the emergence of Hispanic-owned businesses.

To address the influx of Hispanic immigrants -- mainly from Mexico and El Salvador -- Annapolis has hired bilingual Police Department and Fire Department employees and added bus routes to serve the community.

In the past year, leaders in the Spanish-speaking community, including Callahan, have stepped up efforts to ease the adjustment to life in Annapolis through tutoring sessions for children and literacy and citizenship classes for adults, many of whom don't speak English and can't read in Spanish.

"Most of these families only speak Spanish, work two jobs and make way below minimum wage, so when their kids bring homework home there's nobody to help them," said Maria Sasso Taylor, president of the Organization of Hispanic/Latin Americans of Anne Arundel County (OHLA).

The nonprofit group was created in 1998 by Hispanic leaders in Annapolis to help new immigrants find health care, education, legal help, housing, employment and other services.

Like Hispanic immigrants in other areas, those in Annapolis find jobs in the city's many restaurants and hotels, as well as in construction and landscaping.

The Hispanic population is one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the state. Montgomery County is home to 82,120 Hispanics, the largest concentration in Maryland. Baltimore's Hispanic population exceeds 45,000, and Prince George's County has an established Hispanic community. Anne Arundel's total Hispanic population is about 20,000.

At Germantown Elementary, Callahan helps Hispanic pupils, some of whom are from rural farming towns and didn't attend school, make their way in a new, and often frightening, environment. She is also available to their parents, who don't hesitate to call her about homework, teacher conferences or report cards.

"My phone starts ringing at 6 a.m. and doesn't stop till midnight," said Callahan, who emigrated from Cuba in 1961 and has lived in Annapolis for 30 years. "I want parents to feel like they're not alone out there."

At Germantown, nearly all of ESOL teacher Nannette Simmons' pupils are native Spanish speakers with widely varying abilities. All day, they file in and out of her classroom, where Simmons teaches them English. She tries to schedule ESOL classes so they don't interfere with science, art, math and music -- subjects with fewer language barriers than reading and social studies. She also gives the pupils assignments so they can work independently in their home classrooms.

This year, Simmons has worked with Germantown staff members to help them meet the needs of immigrant students. At the start of the school year, she offered weekly language classes for teachers in functional Spanish and included some "sensitivity" training.

"I gave them a few experiences so they could get just a taste of what it's like to try and follow direction or solve a problem when you don't understand the language being spoken," Simmons said.

Taylor hopes that OHLA can obtain grants to develop preschool language programs for Hispanic children, so that they know some English by the time they start kindergarten.

"We want to get these small children into classes," she said. "It's important to teach them the language and customs, so by the time they hit kindergarten they won't feel isolated."

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