Language income barriers force suburban schools to adapt
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 29, 2006

Pat Kossan

Village Meadows Elementary School for decades was filled with the children of White, middle-class families. Those kids began disappearing 10 years ago, giving their seats to students who grew up in lower-income, often Spanish-speaking families.

This scenario repeats itself in suburban schools across the Valley.
Districts often are financially and politically unprepared to deal with the growth in immigration and poverty. Some schools take the lead in working with kids who need more time, energy and attention. Others improvise and adapt. Sometimes students falter or give up.

Forty percent of the teachers at Village Meadows are new to the school in the last four years, and there are not enough teachers or staff who speak Spanish.

Principal Cherryl Paul acknowledges she has made mistakes while figuring out what works best for her pre-kindergartners through sixth-graders. She has overseen changes in everything from new teaching methods to new test scores, different classroom supplies to new class schedules.

In one classroom, a teacher must help students who may be on three different levels of learning English. Other kids may be fluent but have trouble with other subjects. "That's a lot more difficult, it takes a lot more energy up front," Paul said. "Can everyone do that? No way. Village Meadows is not for all teachers."

The district

Low-income families from inner-city Phoenix and out of state, many from California, are seeking jobs and less expensive homes in the southern part of the Deer Valley Unified School District.

Some families buy houses, others rent. Others rent apartments or mobile homes that once housed snowbirds. Many parents work as housekeepers, chefs, construction workers or truck drivers. A few streets south of Village Meadows Elementary, immigrants looking for work gather in parking lots.

In 1999, the district had 4,053 of its kids (about 16 percent) receiving free and reduced-price lunches. Last spring, there were 6,952 (19.6 percent). In the last four years, the number of English-language learners jumped from 1,184 to 1,734.

The number of poor students is growing enough to create new demands on schools but not enough to generate the federal money and grants needed to pay for them, said Christy Agosta, president of Deer Valley's school board.

"A student like that needs intense, individual attention, and you can't do that on a normal budget," Agosta said.

In the last year, Deer Valley has created more English-immersion classes and revised the curriculum in elementary schools. Similar changes will be made in other grades next year. The district plans to offer a telephone translating service.

The district's 30 wealthier schools to the north and west donate things such as library books and emergency food boxes to the six poorer schools.

But resources are scarce. Deer Valley's average teacher pay is less than the pay in surrounding districts, according to the Arizona Auditor General's Office.

The principal

When Cherryl Paul arrived in 2002 as the new principal of Village Meadows, she set out to visit the home of each student and meet parents. When the doors opened, she found herself speechless. The parents didn't speak English, and Paul didn't speak Spanish.

"All I could do is say hola." She had no business cards or information in Spanish. They didn't know who she was. "I couldn't speak to them."

The Village Meadows language barrier persists. Only two of the 54 teachers at the school speak Spanish. No one in the front office, including the registrar, speaks Spanish. Paul has tried to bridge the gap with a bilingual, part-time cafeteria monitor, two Spanish-speaking crossing guards and a few part-time classroom aides.

Bilingual teachers and staff are in demand across the Valley. Many take jobs in surrounding suburban or inner-city districts where pay is higher, Paul said.

Arizona's English-only law requires teachers to present lessons in English with English-language books and materials. Arizona's law allows teachers and aides to help individual students with some Spanish instruction, translate school information and provide interpreters for teachers and at meetings.

For two years, Paul had the school's newsletter translated into Spanish, but she had to stop because of the cost.

Village Meadows mother Christine Adams started a parent-teacher organization four years ago, but getting the word out in Spanish was a problem.

A bilingual teacher stepped up to interpret. Attendance grew to about 20.
Then the teacher left the school and parents were on their own to translate.
Attendance dropped from 20 to five, then two. The parent-teacher organization hasn't held a meeting yet this year.

The teachers

Twenty-two teachers have left the school since Paul became principal four
years ago. Some retired or took a district buyout. Others didn't like Paul's
style or were ready for a change.

Paul wants to hang on to the group she has now. "What they do and what I'm
asking of them is a lot," Paul said.

First-grade teacher Caren Busching and other teachers instruct 20 to 27 kids
without assistants. Last year, the school hired a handful of reading and
English-learning specialists.

Busching says she spends $1,000 of her own money each year on paper, pencil
boxes and glue sticks parents can't afford. She can't count on parent
volunteers because many are working two or three jobs or feel uncomfortable
with their English.

At wealthier schools where Busching taught before, kids sometimes began
kindergarten or first grade already able to read. At Village Meadows, some
children arrive unaware that written text holds a message.

The teachers say it's important to talk to low-income kids individually
every day about how they're feeling. All children want to learn, they say,
but lower-income children, whose families are often unstable, must first
feel safe and loved.

"The kids appreciate you a lot more. The parents appreciate you a lot more,"
Busching said about Village Meadows. Busching says she gets profound
satisfaction at the end of the year when her students have become beginning
readers. It's a kick she couldn't get at a wealthier school and isn't
willing to give up. Not even for $1,000.

The parents

Angelica Garcia moved into the Village Meadows neighborhood six years ago.
She did not speak English, and before Garcia's fourth-grade son learned
enough English to help interpret, calls from the school frightened her.

"If there is an emergency with a child, no one speaks English," Garcia said,
sitting in a neighbor's living room with other Village Meadows mothers.

The family language in these homes remains Spanish. After five, six, even
eight years, they still struggle with English.

Garcia said she gets papers from school about sports leagues and wants to
motivate her son to sign up, but it's difficult to read them. Once the
school had a secretary who spoke Spanish. Now, no one in the front office
can sit down and answer questions in Spanish, explain tutoring programs,
before- and after-school programs, or that the nurse will test their
children's eyes.

An English-only classroom is good for the kids, they say, but an
English-only front office intimidates and isolates parents.

They understand only part of what teachers are saying. No one stops to chat
with them in the school's breezeways. When they ask questions, the responses
are hard to understand.

The district offers online student pages, with grades, homework and e-mail
to teachers.

These mothers don't have Internet service.

Another mother, Magdalena Nicholas, says that every time she needs to
understand something at Village Meadows, she has to sign her son out of high
school to interpret.

"I think it would be easier for Latinos to get involved if someone spoke
Spanish," parent Maria Cardenas said.

The kids

Principal Cherryl Paul knows she must reach the parents to help the kids.
But she also knows she must rely heavily on the kids to get through to
parents. For two years, Paul waited for the moms she saw walking their kids
to school to attend her monthly coffees.

Finally, she walked over to the neighborhood park.

She began talking to the kids, who eventually interpreted for their parents
and made introductions. Since then, she has spent every day greeting parents
after school as she directs traffic and people on foot.

Now, Paul knows what will attract her families. Yearly events such as
literacy, math and science nights, in which parents learn what their
children are learning and families get snacks and sandwiches.

Meet-the-teacher night drew 300 people, and awards events are popular.
Children are honored for grades, attendance, citizenship and sportsmanship.
The events are in English, but parents don't feel forced to speak more than
simple words.

What Paul wants more than anything else is to hire a Spanish-speaking social
worker. But the district can't hire for such a position.

Christy Agosta, president of the district's school board, said that position
would hurt the district when the Arizona Auditor General's Office releases
its annual report on spending in the classroom. The social worker would be
considered money going to administration, not student learning.

"Social service is not supposed to be the job of schools," Agosta said. "But
you and I can both see that if a family's problems are mitigated, the child
can better pursue their education and be successful."

Village Meadows may have to look to cities, businesses or churches to fund a
social worker. In the meantime, teachers and staff in the schools do what
they can.

"We don't want to leave parents behind," Paul said. "We don't want to leave
families behind."

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