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Helping Hispanics make the grade


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."

"I have no problem coming to school," Felicita Salgado, who has three daughters in Howard schools, says through an interpreter. "I feel very comfortable."

At the same time, teachers and other staff members also are trying to make Hispanic students feel more comfortable in school.

The county, for example, has rapidly increased the number of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes -- which give foreign students support in their regular academic classes in their languages, and more time helping them learn English.

Principals love the increased presence of ESOL teachers.

"Last year, every single one of my ESOL kids passed the Maryland [Functional] Writing Test by eighth grade," Thomas says. That test, of the three functional tests required for promotion to high school, is often the most difficult for any of the county's children.

Groups provide support

On the high school level, sometimes the educators have to move past academics to reach Hispanic students.

Last year, Long Reach High School guidance counselors formed a club called Hermanas Unidas for Hispanic girls -- a group they noticed was more frequently leaving school to have babies, get married or move in with older men to leave their often crowded and protective homes.

Because many Hispanics tend to value marriage for young women more than degrees, and motherhood over education, the practice isn't as taboo as it is for other groups in America. The support group for Hispanic girls attempts to build their self-esteem and provide education about other options.

"We are trying to impart the need for education for females that is not always as important in other countries," says counselor Diane Pelesh, one of two co-facilitators of the group, whose name means "Sisters United." "The goal is to make sure they make it to graduation. By keeping them connected in school, they recognize the need for education and they recognize they have a support system."

In May, when a community group called Conexiones, which promotes Hispanic education, held the county's first honors and scholarship program for Hispanic graduates, members of Hermanas Unidas made up a large portion of those winning awards.

"You are entering history," keynote speaker Walter Rodriguez told the graduates at the ceremony. "The community is supporting you. We are so happy that you are finishing high school."

More programs like Hermanas Unidas that embrace and encourage -- as opposed to ones that lecture or try to impose American values -- are needed, says Eileen Woodbury, the school system's equity assurance specialist.

"Any community is unique," she says. "What we have to do, especially with the Hispanic community, is draw on the power of the community -- the family, churches and civic groups, like Conexiones -- so that we can address the needs of these families and students and ensure their successful achievement."

One of those needs is English skills. Programs such as Howard County Library's Project Literacy help teach adults English in many of the county's schools. Community liaisons often direct the parents they work with to the classes. Sometimes, they take them there.

Economic pressures

Another need, community liaisons say, is money.

Many Hispanic families work extremely hard for little pay and come from cultures where hard work is not only necessary but considered honorable. A teen-ager with a part-time job in the evenings or on weekends soon realizes that quitting school could provide him more hours and a bigger paycheck -- so he can contribute at home as a man, and maybe have some leftover money for a trendy pair of sneakers like those his American friends wear.

"When you get people that are coming here with less than a sixth-grade education, often from a rural background and extreme poverty, $8 an hour seems like a lot of money," Goodman says.

And if the families entered the country illegally, it's difficult, if not impossible, for a foreign-born child to get into college.

The combination makes it difficult to persuade students that finishing high school ought to be a priority.

Conexiones members presented the Howard school board in June with a list of suggestions to help encourage more Hispanic students to graduate.

They said the school system needs to increase the number of liaisons in elementary schools, the number of homework clubs for students like Jose, and the number of Hispanic teachers, guidance counselors and administrators. They also want the system to provide sensitivity training for its school staff.

"It's important for each teacher to understand that we're not prejudice-free," says Murray Simon, the group's president.

Quintanilla, Jose's mother, says American teachers often don't understand that Hispanic students tend to be less assertive. Speaking up in class might be considered brash; taking up a teacher's time after school for help could be construed as rude.

"The quiet child is the good child," explains Pope.

"Teachers need to be more aware of the culture of these kids so they can reach out to them," Quintanilla says through an interpreter. "Because it's not lack of interest."

Bianca Marchany, Glenelg High School's only Hispanic graduate last year, says the Conexiones awards program validated her desire to go to college and be more than people might expect her to be.

"It really gives me pride in what I am," she says. "I can take this [scholarship] back to my school and show them that I'm just as good as anybody else."

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