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 Latino Leaders Want Pr. George's Charter
 The Washington Post
 September 17, 2003

By Nancy Trejos
  A small group of Latino community leaders announced yesterday that it will seek approval for a charter school in Prince George's County designed to help immigrant students.
 The group's plan calls for a year-round school in Hyattsville -- one of the county's most diverse neighborhoods -- initially serving students in kindergarten to third grade. Students would be taught in English and their native languages, the organizers said, and parents would be offered free English classes.
 The fledgling effort highlights a push by Hispanic community leaders to gain more political clout in the county, where the number of Hispanic residents has nearly doubled in the past decade. Hispanics made up 7.1 percent of the population of Prince George's in the 2000 Census, second only in Maryland to Montgomery County, where Latinos were 11.5 percent.
 "They're growing by leaps and bounds, they are requiring more services and there is a diminishment of services to them," said Carmen Roman, a Spanish professor at the University of Maryland and one of the organizers of the charter school group.
 Roman and other Latino activists contend that the Prince George's school district has failed to pay enough attention to immigrant children, especially Latinos. The district does not employ enough Spanish-speaking teachers, guidance counselors and other employees, they said, and parents are often not encouraged to play an active role in their children's schools.
 Hispanic students also have fared poorly on standardized tests: Last month, the average SAT score increased 15 points for African American students in the county but dropped 10 points for Hispanics, compared with the year before.
 "I think the scores speak for themselves," Roman said. "It is the immigrant and minority communities that are suffering in all the testing."
 Since taking over June 1, new county schools chief André J. Hornsby has said he would include improving services for the growing Latino population among his goals. Prince George's is one of the few school systems in the region where Latino students outnumber whites. Black students remain the overwhelming majority, representing 77.4 percent of the district's roughly 136,000 students, while Latinos make up 10.6 percent and white students 8.3 percent.
 School board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) said this week that the school system does all it can to help immigrant students. And she pointed out that the group proposing the charter school had not contacted the board to talk about its concerns.
  "I don't know what kind of services they want," Tignor said. "If they want to work with us, we're willing to work with them."
  If approved by the school board, the proposed charter school would be the first in the county and just the second in Maryland. But its proponents -- who include a counselor, an adult education teacher in Virginia, a pupil personnel worker for Montgomery's public schools, and the president of a Latino advocacy group in Prince George's -- will face many hurdles.
 In Maryland, a local school board's consent is required for charters, despite attempts by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to enact legislation that would have taken the local boards out of the approval process. Still, a state law that took effect this summer was intended to make it easier to establish charter schools by allowing applicants to appeal denials to the State Board of Education.
 Maryland's first charter school opened in Frederick last year. Montgomery County is working with the San Francisco-based Knowledge is Power Program to create a charter program within an existing middle school within the next two years. Nationally, the number of charter schools has increased dramatically. According to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group, one such school existed in 1992; today there are at least 2,700.
 Yet in Prince George's, Hornsby and some school board members have indicated that they are either opposed to or undecided about the concept. Charter opponents often argue that the schools, which operate outside the control of the local school system yet receive federal funding, drain money and parental involvement from the public schools.
 "Charter schools are not the catchall for problems," said Tignor, a former public school teacher. "There's a place for them, and I don't know whether Prince George's is or is not the place for them."
 Tignor also called the effort in Prince George's premature because the school board has not decided on a charter school policy. The board will
vote on a policy next month, she said.

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