Hispanic Parents Learn About Kids' English-Language Programs

It’s no big secret. Children are better students when their parents get involved in school activities and help with homework.

What happens, though, when harried parents are working long hours and trying to deal with a new place, a new language, a new culture?

Those parents aren’t yet fluent in English, though they may be attending night classes to learn the language, as thousands do each year in Central Florida. They can encourage their children to study, perhaps help them with mathematics, but that’s about it.

That can happen to children coming from anywhere — Vietnam, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Haiti, Brazil, Croatia. It’s not a problem that’s peculiar to Hispanics. But whenever I write about improving English-language learning programs to help reduce the dismal dropout rate for Hispanic students — the highest rate among all student groups in Orange County — I get letters or phone calls from some irate readers.

They argue that Hispanics must be inferior because other immigrant groups in the past didn’t need special programs, such as bilingual instruction in English and Spanish, to help students understand science, math and social studies while they become fluent in English.

It’s silly to compare today’s situation to the America of 100 or more years ago, when Italians, Poles, Eastern Europeans, Greeks, Chinese and others came in large numbers to the United States. Back then people didn’t need to read or write to do most jobs. Most children didn’t graduate from high school.

We are in the midst of a technological age that demands fluency in English and skills beyond those of a bricklayer or hotel maid.

That’s not to put down manual jobs, but the reality is that many of those jobs — particularly in the tourism industry — pay barely enough to help families stay afloat.

By contrast, the nation’s manufacturing economy of the 1950s provided good pay and helped millions of families climb the economic ladder and enabled the children of those workers — many of them the children and grandchildren of immigrants — to go on to college.

So let’s stop looking to the past to explain what we must do today.

We should be looking ahead and asking: How can communities get parents involved in their children’s education today?

The Orange County school system has taken several steps. Schools now send information home in Spanish and other languages to parents who aren’t yet fluent in English. More bilingual schoolteachers and staff have been hired, though more are needed, to help students whose first language may be Spanish, Vietnamese, Brazilian Portuguese or Haitian Creole.

Meanwhile, state education officials are getting more involved instead of simply dictating rules from Tallahassee. For instance, there will be a workshop at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Jones High School to reach out to Hispanic parents with children in Orange County schools. Department of Education official Bernardo Garcia will meet with the Orange County school system’s Parent Leadership Council to explain the state’s role.

That’s all to the good.

We can’t afford to ignore that Hispanic students are the largest group of newcomers. Florida is the gateway to Latin America much as New York was the gateway to European immigrants in the early 1900s.

We can’t afford to ignore that the ability to speak and understand Spanish is a plus for Florida to increase trade to Latin America, a natural hemispheric trading partner, and provide better jobs for our residents.

That cuts both ways.

American children of all races who don’t know a foreign language can benefit from learning Spanish or other languages.

And none of that should take away from a mutual understanding that English must be the language that binds us all.

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