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 educators are working hard to help Hispanic children be more successful.

That has required innovations ranging from teams of bilingual facilitators to 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.

The liaisons 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.

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.

"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.

Superintendent John R. O'Rourke has since agreed to buy the liaisons their own remote translation equipment, Goodman says.

The county also 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.

Last year, Long Reach High School guidance counselors formed a club called Hermanas Unidas for Hispanic girls - a group they noticed was more frequently dropping out.

In May, when a community group called Conexiones, which promotes Hispanic education, held an honors and scholarship program, members of Hermanas Unidas made up a large portion of the awardees.

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