Immigration Puts Pressure on Southern Schools

Gil Klein and Daniel Gilbert, Media General News Service, Nov. 28

OCCOQUAN, Va.—Sitting on the floor around teacher Angela Naggles, first and second graders watch intently as she prints words on her whiteboard and asks the children to read them.

Cat. Hat. Sat.

A boy does a good job and Naggles praises, “Muy bien.”

A visitor asks the class, “De dónde son?” (Where are you from?)

Mexico, pipes up one child. El Salvador. Honduras. Guatemala. Nicaragua. When Naggles proclaims, “Los Estados Unidos,” all the kids laugh.

Naggles, a Richmond, Va., native, is the fifth teacher added at Occoquan Elementary School in as many years to teach English-language learners. Nearly 200 of the school’s 535 students are not native English speakers, up from 42 five years ago.

Like many towns throughout the South, Occoquan, a distant Washington, D.C. suburb, is an immigrant magnet.

Most of these immigrants are from Mexico and Central America. The Hispanic population is growing faster in parts of the South than anywhere else in the United States, according to a recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center, “The New Latino South.”

Immigrants are showing up in places that had not experienced past immigration waves. They are arriving in cities, suburbs and rural areas alike. During the 1990s, Hispanics of school age in six states Pew studied—Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee—grew from 55,199 to 232,756, a 322 percent increase.

But that tells only part of the story.

Immigrants in the 1990s often were single men looking for work in construction, food processing, landscaping, and mills. Now, the report said, they are settling down, getting married and starting families.

Latino school enrollment in those states is projected to grow by 210 percent between 2001 and 2007 compared to 2 percent for non-Hispanic students. The study predicted that by 2007, Hispanic students will constitute 10 percent of the school-age population, compared to 4 percent in 2000.

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Speaking another language is not required to become a certified ESOL teacher. While most immigrants are Hispanic, speaking Spanish does not help with the polyglot of languages arriving in Southern schools.

“We have a Bengali speaker, a Chinese speaker, a Farsi speaker,” said Kari Wilson an ESOL teacher at Occoquan. “You need to teach children from any background.”

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