If Hispanic business people and professionals expected to be enlightened about what Orange County schools are doing to help Latino kids break the language barrier and excel, they were sorely disappointed.

Last week’s education forum, hosted by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, tried to do too much with too little time. It wasn’t the chamber’s fault. School district officials asked to make a presentation but didn’t want to take any questions because they figured there wouldn’t be time to give in-depth answers. How odd. School Board members have told me often that they want to hear from the business community, that they want to get people more involved in the schools. Well, it takes two to tango in this school dance, boys and girls.

How can people, none of them Hispanic, set policy for a school system in which minorities make up a majority without listening to the very folks who will be providing the jobs for many of those students?

It was a dog-and-pony show that left many in the audience wondering why they hadn’t had a chance to ask specific questions of School Board members and Orange County Schools Superintendent Ron Blocker.

Several business people came up to me later at the event, in which I introduced the speakers, to tell me it had been a waste of time. They had expected the school system to showcase their successes and to speak seriously about what the school system is doing to improve the district’s abysmal Hispanic dropout rate.

Some speakers, such as those pushing for mentors for a YMCA program for Hispanic students and the Orlando-Orange County Compact program that aims to keep at-risk kids in school, did what they could in the five minutes the program allotted for each.

University High School Principal Anna Diaz, the former president of the Florida Association of Hispanic Administrators, drove home the point that the school district hasn’t done enough to promote qualified Hispanics to principal and other administrative positions. Barely 8 percent of the system’s administrators are Hispanic even though the growth in the student population — almost one in four students is Hispanic — has soared for a decade.

Instead of tackling some of those issues, particularly the dropout rate and language instruction, Orange County School Board Chairman Susan Arkin rambled on for much longer than the five minutes allowed. She later left for another appointment before it was over.

I’ve always thought Arkin is one of the brightest and hardest-working board members, but she missed the mark last Thursday by not honing in specifically on the needs of Hispanic students. She talked about the “possibility for the future” of dual-language programs which can help both native-Spanish speakers learn English and kids who speak only English learn a foreign language, such as Spanish, French or whatever else. So what is the school system doing to make that a reality?

She didn’t say. Instead she stressed that the school system has children who come from homes that speak one of more than 100 languages, such as Urdu.
“What is Urdu? I’ve never heard it,” she quipped.

Well, hear this: There are 29,264 students in Orange County schools who speak Spanish, and many of them need help learning English. They are by far the largest group, followed by 3,545 students who speak Haitian-Creole,
1,077 who speak Portuguese and 1,070 who speak Vietnamese. As for Urdu, 408 students speak it. Obviously, the audience came to hear about Hispanic children. Why waste business people’s valuable time talking in circles?

School Board member Linda Sutherland did a much better job of explaining what she has done to help her district, which includes Colonial High School,
where Hispanics make up half the student body. Sutherland talked about the possibility of a newcomer’s school to help Hispanic children and their families navigate a new culture. But when would that happen?

We don’t know.

Blocker talked about the need for high expectations for all children, but,
again, he didn’t get into specifics about language instruction.

Yet the loudest applause came when Sutherland talked about “the advantage”
of students learning two languages, including instruction for non-Hispanic whites and African- Americans.

That was exactly Chamber President Raiza Tamayo’s point when she told educators in her opening remarks that in our growing global economy, as trade with our Latin neighbors continues to increase in Florida, it’s imperative that “students should be proficient in two languages.”

About 200 people turned out to find out more about the school system. They want to get involved, because they know it’s not only the right thing to do,
it’s a business imperative. The school system needs to follow up with a forum that would allow people to ask the tough questions. Only then can district officials show they are serious about helping Hispanic kids succeed.



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