MOULTRIE -- A family of eight left Sunset Elementary School last fall smiling. They just enrolled their youngest in first grade.
Their youngest is 10 years old, but he has never been to school, not even in their native Mexico.
They had just emigrated from a remote area of Mexico where the closest school was too far away. Sunset administrators gladly figured out a way to help the boy adjust and learn.
Likely, he was enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to supplement his regular study. The district currently has 309 students in ESL classes and seven teachers to teach them English.
Colquitt County Schools is on the cutting edge, administrators believe, in addressing the unique needs of Hispanics. It has to be. Hispanic students are entering the district fairly equally from prekindergarten to 12th grade, and the influx is on a steady increase, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Mo Yearta said Friday.
Hispanics make up 13 percent of students in Colquitt County Schools. Of those, 29 percent are learning to speak English, said instructional technologist Leanne NeSmith. Each summer, the district offers a migrant summer school. Most students in the program are Hispanic, Yearta said. This year, she expects about 400 students between age 3 and eighth grade.
It's a population whose first language is not English and is often challenged by poverty and a transient lifestyle. Many people say they rise to the challenge and are committed to bettering the lives of their children. Others say they are a drain on the system, but scores indicate otherwise. In fact, the district dropout rate, although high at 14 percent, cuts evenly out of all three major ethic groups: White, black and Latino.
"Many of our Hispanic students have scored very well on standardized tests," said Funston Principal Lynn Clark.
"We're finding that most of our children are bilingual coming in," Clark said. "Many of our people who are here are Hispanics who have been here for many years. We have many children who have been with us since pre-K."
Funston Elementary's student population now is nearly 28 percent Hispanic.
For many Hispanic children coming into the district, the only barrier is language. But, once that's overcome, those children excel. One of Clark's fifth-graders came into the district at the beginning of fourth grade speaking no English. Eighteen months later, the girl's become an excellent writer in English and is translating successfully for Clark. When asked how she could comprehend English so well, the girl told Clark, "Because my teachers cared about me."
Of course, the earlier children come in the better to learn English because all of the youngest students are being taught phonics and are learning to read.
Georgia's Choice, a method used by most if not all the district's elementary schools, teaches children on their instructional level.
"We're doing so much more in class meeting children where they are and taking them on. Our focus is now teach them where they are and watch them progress," Clark said.
"Each school's kind of on their own leg in what they're doing right now, but this will be systemwide," Clark said.
Funston, for instance, had been offering an English class through Moultrie Technical College but currently doesn't have the manpower to do it. Clark hopes to revive the class, which she considered to be a bridge to the Hispanic community.
Colquitt County Schools is waiting for application approval for participation in the Center for Latino Achievement and Success (CLASE), created at the University of Georgia in 2003. If selected, the district will form a panel of nine educators -- Clark is one of them -- that will create an action plan for Latino achievement with assistance from UGA faculty. The multidisciplinary team will learn about successful initiatives other Georgia districts are implementing, beginning with a focus on mathematics and science just as is emphasized by the Georgia Project.
The district will be involved in the Georgia Project, an international exchange program pushed for by Colquitt County's congressional delegation and already successful in Dalton, Ga. Two Colquitt County teachers will study at the University of Mexico and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College during the summer, while two Mexican teachers will work at C.A. Gray and Willie J. Williams middle schools for the entire school year as resource teachers. The Georgia Project also provides professional development opportunities for other Colquitt County teachers.
The district also will benefit from a grant secured by Valdosta State University for professional development training of eighth grade and high school language arts and English teachers with instructional strategies geared toward students whose first language is not English. Selected teachers also will be immersed in Hispanic and Latino literature in a reading and writing workshop format this summer, Yearta said.
Teachers and administrators, even Superintendent Leonard McCoy, have taken intensive classes in Spanish. The system also has a full-time translator at the central office.
"I think we're working at it very hard. Looking at it from all perspectives -- we've got two parent involvement coordinators who are reaching out to Hispanic families, we've got migrant transition specialists helping them, we've used federal money to get instructional materials for our ESL teachers -- which we've never had in the past -- that are directly related to what's going on in the classroom," Yearta said. "We've provided professional development for regular classroom teachers, not just ESL teachers, so they can understand some of the challenges and how they can adapt some of their strategies to try and overcome the language barrier.
"We have the same type of initiatives for students with weak reading skills regardless of their ethnic background. We're mandated under federal law now to try to make all students succeed. We can't afford to leave anybody behind. We've got strategies to reach all, different groups of students, whether it's based on ethnic groups or academic abilities. We're constantly meeting to pull people together to brainstorm strategies to help all students to be successful from actively recruiting from colleges the best students to become teachers," she said. "We are ethically and personally motivated to get all of our children to be successful, not particularly one group over another. We want to be able to stand up and say that we've done everything that we can to help every child succeed."
Editor's note: This story ran in conjunction with two regional stories by the Associated Press addressing problems of educating the growing Hispanic population. Due to copyright laws, these stories are available only in our print or full online editions.