County schools reach out to Hispanics
Nov. 18, 2004
Jeffrey K. Lyles and Corina E. Rivera
Staff Writers

With the Latino population becoming more and more prominent in Prince George's County, area schools are finding new and creative ways of meeting the needs of its Spanish speaking population.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000 Maryland's Hispanics comprised up 4.3 percent of the state's population. However, in Prince George's County, the Hispanic population is 7.1 percent.

By comparison, in the 1990 census, the county had 29,983 Hispanics, which increased dramatically by the 2000 census to 57,057.

Parent liaison at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School in Langley Park Argelia Cabrera said Latino students make up about 95 percent of the school's population.

She said in order to eliminate problems that some Latinos and others face, the school, in conjunction with the area food banks, donates food and clothes once a month to the community.

The University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), also offers workshops at the school to teach Latino parents about the school system, including computer skills and report card grading, she said.

Mount Rainier Elementary School has adjusted well to its first year of having an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, said Principal Phillip Catania.

"We've had two ESOL specialists assigned to the school and we pull students out to work on their vocabulary development as well as in-class instruction," Catania said. "It's going great. We've had a lot of parent support and the students are blending in great."

Unlike Mount Rainier, some schools, including Bladensburg Elementary, have had an ESOL program for many years and have developed successful strategies for working with parents and pupils.

"A third of the school is comprised of ESOL students," said Bladensburg Elementary Principal Rhonda Pitts.

At Bladensburg, the ESOL teachers go into the classroom and support the students within the classroom schedule under the inclusion model.

The school also makes a point to have monthly events for ESOL parents to learn tips that reinforce the learning process in the classroom.

"Each of our parent nights has an ESOL component to it. We give the parents resources to take home and work with their children," Pitts said.

Silvia Hoke, counselor at the county's International Student Guidance Office, said parental involvement is very important.

Her office is active in promoting educational opportunities for Latinos as evident in the event it is sponsoring Saturday at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, geared to informing Latino parents and students on higher education.

There will be workshops that teach students and parents how students can prepare to apply for college, she said. Local colleges and universities' representatives will be present, she said.

"On Saturday, we will talk with them on how to get their kids ready for college, even if they're not U.S. citizens.

"We're also trying to break down the stereotypes that if you don't make a certain amount of money, you can't get in," Hoke said.

"It's very important that they begin planning early because by high school it may be too late; their grades might not be up to par. Some parents don't understand the process but if they put in the time to learn, they will succeed," she said.

To help communicate with parents, Mount Rainier Elementary translates into Spanish its newsletters, forms and other materials sent home so parents are aware of what's going on at the school.

Catania said his parent liaison, Esmerelda Barrientos, and second grade teacher Rosa Burges, herself a former ESOL student, help translate to Spanish speaking parents when they come to the school.

"I've been listening to Spanish tapes myself. They say it's easiest to learn another language before you're five years old so it's coming slow," Catania said with a laugh. "But the 'buenos dias' I say to the students and parents means a lot to them."

English classes are offered in the evenings for adults as are ESOL classes in the day for the pupils at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary, Cabrera said.

This helps the school build relationships with the community, she said.

"The students respond positively to their parents' active roles in the school," she said.

Principal Sandi Jimenez said her school has active parent participation.

"We told them it's their moral obligation to be involved. My first goal as a principal was to have the parents involved. We have about 200 parents at our PTA meetings now," she said.

The PTA's executive committee is more proactive now and is planning to organize a safety committee to have parents around the school during entrance and release times, Jimenez said.

It is also planning cultural activities and supporting legislation, including requesting speed bumps around the school, she said. On UMCP's involvement, Jimenez said parents also learn about No Child Left Behind.

"These are things that non-English speaking parents are typically not aware of. We make sure we have an open door policy.

"If any parent needs a conference, we always make sure translation is provided," Jimenez said, adding 15 staff members speak both English and Spanish, including herself.

"We have really found that parent involvement makes a difference with the child," she said"

On schools encouraging parents to participate, Hoke said, "I think the schools do a lot of outreach already.

"They also need to find creative ways to get the whole community involved because Latinos have extended families so even if the parents can't come, an aunt or a grandmother can be involved," she said.

To assist their neighboring schools, Elizabeth Seton High School had students serve as translators for the Back to School Nights at Port Towns and Rogers Heights Elementary schools in September.

"We were invited by the principals of the schools and we got nine volunteers spending several nights translating for parents," said Seton President Sister Virginia Ann Brooks.

"The benefit of that is that a child is not interpreting for his parent or teaching which places the child in the adult role and they may not translate the same way as the adults might."

Brooks said that the school would definitely be willing to assist the elementary schools in the future with any translation assistance.

E-mail Corina E. Rivera at and Jeffrey K. Lyles at