Friday, December 05, 2008

Embracing diversity

Midland Park Elementary takes on challenges of having district's biggest Hispanic enrollment

By Diette Courrégé | The Post and Courier
Sunday, November 30, 2008

A striking surge in Hispanic students at one Charleston County elementary school has changed the way its educators do business.

The school communicates with its Hispanic parents in their native tongue, and teachers work hard to overcome the language barrier of students and their families.

Hispanic students make up nearly half of the roughly 750 students at Midland Park Elementary School in North Charleston, up from just 20 percent five years ago. Its Hispanic enrollment is the largest in the county and among the largest in the state. The Hispanic student growth spurt at Midland Park is the most dramatic in the school district, but similar increases can be seen throughout county schools.

The racial diversity in Charleston County schools traditionally has consisted of black and white students, but an increasing number of Hispanic students is affecting the school district's approach in reaching out to families.

The number of Hispanic students in Charleston County nearly has doubled in the past five years, from 1,370 in 2004-05 to 2,317 this year. Hispanic students now make up about 5.5 percent of the roughly 42,000 public school children, black students account for about 50 percent and white students are about 42 percent.

Rachel Amey, the district's coordinator for English Speakers of Other Languages, said in her eight years with the district, the number of ESOL teachers has nearly tripled. About 87 percent of those who don't speak English speak

Spanish; the remaining 13 percent speak 35 different languages.

The district's Hispanic population growth has necessitated the hiring of a bilingual parent advocate and a bilingual administrator. The school district sends parents letters and phone messages in Spanish. More classes are offered to Spanish-speaking parents, and translation software is available to schools across the district, Amey said.

"Everybody is more aware (of Hispanic families), and at every level in the school, the personnel and staff seek to support our students and parents now," Amey said.

Midland Park has earned a reputation for welcoming all cultures, and school Principal Robert Candillo said that was one reason the school's Hispanic population has shot up.

Anything that goes home to parents is sent in Spanish and English, whether it's progress reports or homework for kindergartners. The school provides educational games for families with the directions in Spanish, and it holds its PTA meetings in Spanish and English. It employs a translator, three full-time and 2 part-time ESOL teachers as well as bilingual teachers, psychologists and speech pathologists to work with its Spanish-speaking students and parents.

Although students must learn English, the school values their ability to speak Spanish. As a result, the school plans to pilot the district's first dual immersion program next year with a kindergarten class. Students will receive half of their lessons in English and half in Spanish.

"We don't want them to lose their native language," Candillo said.

Bilingual art teacher Brenda Reyes said schools need to go beyond meeting students' needs and help their parents. Hispanic parents often don't understand the English language or schools' expectations because they are unfamiliar with both, she said.

"Parents need to be helped more," she said. "We're doing what we can. If other schools do the same, that would be great."

Reach Diette Courrégé at 937-5546 or

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