Advocacy & Activism, Education

District Talks Language Gap

From, “District Talks Language Gap” by Stephenie Livingston, Suwannee Democrat, 6 Apr 2011.

Shortage of bilingual parapro’s goes against federal law

Live Oak [FL] — When Koralia Robles moved to Florida from Bolivia in 2004 to work in tomato production, she wanted to make a better life for her daughter.

“She went from the plane to the bus,” said Robles.

But for her daughter Noelia Virgos-Robles, now a 6th grader at Suwannee Intermediate, the first months at a new school in the U.S. would not be easy. Anxious to answer questions and meet new friends, first Noelia had to learn how to ask “Where is the bathroom?” in English.

“I had to ask my Spanish speaking friends to ask the teacher if I could go to the bathroom,” she laughed. “I could understand English, but I couldn’t speak it. So it was frustrating when I knew an answer to a question in class, but I couldn’t say it.”

Many native Spanish speaking students at Suwannee District schools may be struggling in the classroom due to a shortage of bilingual paraprofessionals.

For some time, the District has been in violation of federal law that require Title I schools  with more than 15 ELL (English Language Learners) students speaking a common native language, such as Spanish in this case, to have an individual proficient in the language of ELL students in ESOL basic subject area classrooms, according to Lila Udell, the director of Title I School Improvement Initiative.

Five District schools need a bilingual paraprofessional in order to meet federal guidelines, including Suwannee Intermediate School, Suwannee Middle School, Suwannee Elementary School and Branford Elementary School. Udell said while there are currently some Spanish speaking employees on at least two District campuses, those employees were not hired specifically for ELL students; therefore, they do not meet the requirements of those guidelines.

The District has gotten by with using ESOL support teacher Nita Mathis throughout county schools while paying her travel expenses from school to school, Udell told School Board members during a workshop Tuesday.

During a recent monitoring audit by the state’s Auditor General, the District was cited for their lack of bilingual paraprofessionals.

“We were using Mrs. Mathis as our escape goat,” Udell told the board. “ … but this time Tallahassee said ‘No’.”

Some school board members expressed concern that sufficient funding is not available to hire more bilingual paraprofessionals. Board member Jerry Taylor said this is another example of an unfunded federal mandate.

Superintendent Jerry Scarborough said he is aware more bilingual paraprofessionals are needed to assist in the education of migrant and Spanish speaking students. He said while the District is making efforts to identify migrant students who need assistance and promoting their education, they are looking into ways to improve the education of migrant students. He said a lot will depend on future funding. And although he said next year’s funding appears to be status quo, Scarborough added that “nothing’s for sure these days.”

Despite the lack of bilingual paraprofessionals, the District is making efforts to give assistance and support to native Spanish speaking students, many of which are children of migrant farm workers.

Migrant Coordinator for Suwannee schools Juanita Torrez said many of the Districts’ migrant students are also ESOL students, and nearly half of the migrant children who enter Suwannee schools are below grade level. She said it is difficult to keep migrant students on point, since they change schools so often.

“They come to us ready to learn, and it’s hard, not impossible, but hard,” Torrez said.

She said the majority of migrant parents are very involved in their children’s education because they want their children to have the brightest possible future. However, Torrez said the life of a migrant farm worker is often passed down to their children.

“We try to break that cycle, if possible,” she said.

Many migrant students are only in school for a few weeks, or months before their parents must follow the crops to a different location where they will enter a another school.

“Some are here for a summer, or a month or two. Others are more stable,” said migrant farm workers’ advocate and recruiter for Suwannee District schools Naela Jimenez. Jimenez is currently working in neighborhoods and in the fields to recruit the children of incoming summer farm workers.

“We try to make sure they are enrolled in school while they are here, for however long that is,” she said. “We also want to help the parents find daycare and health care, and other support like that.”

The District has created meetings and programs to give to give the parents of these children a voice in their child’s education. Migrant Council meetings made up of bilingual staff and parents is one successful way this has happened. The council meetings are an opportunity for all Spanish speaking parents to become more aware and involved in their child’s education, according to Mathis.

“The meetings familiarize parents with the school and staff so that they feel more comfortable,” Mathis said after last Wednesday night’s council meeting. “At these meetings, (Spanish speaking) parents feel they have a voice and that someone is listening to them.”

She added: “These parents are very involved in their student’s education. They tell their kids, ‘You don’t want to do what I do when you grow up. They want better for them.”

Mathis said the majority of ESOL students in the Suwannee District are native Spanish speakers, but not all of the parents who attend council meeting and take advantage of other support are migrant workers.

At a Migrant Council meeting that took place last week, parents were informed about upcoming FCAT testing and other happenings in the District. The majority of the meeting centered around a presentation by Literacy Coordinator Debra Barnes with Suwannee River Regional Library, who told parents about a variety of services and support offered by the library, including tutoring and summer programs.

“We work with anyone who is failing in school and with adult literacy,” she said. “We do have some Spanish speaking students.”

Barnes said they do not help students with homework, but they do offer tutoring twice a week for students who are in danger of failing to improve in areas where they have fallen behind.

Robles said although the District has room to improve in the area of bilingual paraprofessionals, she is appreciative of the education and language support her daughter has received.

Her daughter Noelia, now an honor student, hopes to attend Harvard Law School when she grows up, so she can fight injustice.

“I don’t like when people treat other people the wrong way. Everything has to be fair for everyone,” Noelia said.

Read at:, “District Talks Language Gap” by Stephenie Livingston, Suwannee Democrat, 6 Apr 2011.


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