Latinos anxious over end of school liaisons in Pr. George’s

As word spreads of the recent decision by the Prince George’s Board of Education to eliminate 120 full-time parent liaisons next year to save money, parents and staff at schools with large Latino populations are increasingly worried about how they will cope.

In her eight years at Hyattsville Middle School, liaison Rosa Lorenzo, 48, has often been the only person able to interpret for the roughly one-third of parents who speak only Spanish.

When a learning disability was diagnosed in eighth-grader Fernando Ocono in November, his mother said, it was Lorenzo who kept her involved in the school’s response plan by explaining the procedures and regularly updating her on the boy’s progress.

When a teacher noticed that seventh-grader Christian Gonzalez had grown distracted and depressed in October, Lorenzo not only found out the source of the boy’s anguish — his father was going blind from untreated diabetes — but also searched for clinics that could provide low-cost treatment without health insurance. Today the father is on the mend, and Christian recently made the honor roll.

“It will harm me so much not to have her,” Christian’s mother, Laura Castro, 36, said in Spanish.

“I consult her on everything — how to understand Christian’s report card, what after-school programs he should sign up for . . .,” said Castro, who makes a living collecting scrap metal. “Who will I talk to when she’s gone? I will feel powerless.”

The Latino community’s growing anxiety over the board’s decision highlights Prince George’s uneasy transition from a majority-black county that has been a magnet for affluent African Americans to a county increasingly characterized by low-income Latino immigrant enclaves.
Changing demographics

African Americans have been losing ground in the school system since 2003, when their numbers peaked at 78 percent of the student population. By contrast, the Hispanic student population is growing rapidly, doubling between 2002 and 2009. Nearly one in five Prince George’s public school students are Hispanic; some schools have concentrations as high as 98 percent.

Tension over how schools should serve newcomers without neglecting the needs of established groups, such as the county’s substantial number of low-income African Americans, surfaced at the meeting last week during which board members — none of whom are Latino — overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to preserve 40 out of 120 liaisons who are bilingual.

“To pick and choose a group” of liaisons to keep, said board member Pat Fletcher (District 3), “is even more devastating than letting them all go,” calling it “ironic” that only “Hispanic positions” would be saved.

She explained in an interview several days later that she was a strong supporter of the liaison program as a whole. But she said that she saw many English-speaking parents having trouble navigating the school system, too.

“It’s the same issue. In terms of [an American] mother who had bad experiences in school, dropped out and just had no clue in terms of the school system, it’s the same,” she said.

But board member Heather Iliff (District 2), who was the lone vote in favor of saving the bilingual liaisons, disagreed. “I think the need is more acute for people who don’t speak the language,” she said.

Administrators at several schools with bilingual liaisons echoed that view. Counselors or other staff might be able to make up for Lorenzo’s absence by forming close bonds with parents who speak English, noted Gail Golden, principal of Hyattsville Middle School. “But I don’t have any counselors who are bilingual, I’m not bilingual, and none of my assistant principals are bilingual,” she said, so Lorenzo is “pivotal.”
Woman of many roles

To watch Lorenzo in action on a recent morning was to get a glimpse of what Golden meant. A petite woman with a hearty laugh who worked as manager of a jewelry store before deciding to find a job where she could serve the community, Lorenzo strides through the halls in a blur, gripping a walkie-talkie that constantly bleeps with requests.

“Miss Lorenzo: Are you there?” crackled the voice of one the assistant principals. “I need you to make some calls.” Of the 10 eighth-graders with unexplained absences that day, five had parents who speak only Spanish.

“Sure, I’ll be there in a sec,” said Lorenzo, stopping to offer a friendly smile to a tense-looking Honduran woman waiting in the main office.

“Hi. You’re here to pick up your daughter for a doctor’s appointment?” asked the Dominican-born Lorenzo in Spanish. The woman’s face relaxed at the sound of her own language. “Ok,” continued Lorenzo. “If you can, ask the doctor for a note. That way your daughter will be excused for missing class.”

Then it was off to help the director of the English for Speakers of Other Languages program write a comment form for parents. “I really want them to tell me what further information they’d find useful,” said the teacher.

“Okay,” said Lorenzo, taking out her pen. “Here’s how you say this.”

Lorenzo also often serves as an indispensable cultural ambassador, Golden said, for instance helping immigrant parents recognize the value of enrolling children in free after-school tutoring.

Simply sending a note home in Spanish notifying parents of the opportunity is not enough, explained Lorenzo, who draws on her own experience coming to the United States at 17 and raising six children in county schools.

“When they say no, it’s because they don’t trust that their children are going to go. They think it’s an excuse to party or something,” Lorenzo said.

“I have a lot of parents who can’t even read the permission slip in Spanish. So I have to call them and tell them, ‘This is what this is for, and it’s okay to sign, and if you want to come and observe, you can.’ Once I say all that, they feel relieved and say yes.”

Indeed, the ability of bilingual liaisons to bridge cultural differences along with linguistic ones is the reason several principals said they’ve decided to use federal Title I funding for high-poverty schools to keep their parent liaisons on board.

“We’ll have to make adjustments in other areas,” said Carol Cantu, principal of Riverdale Elementary School, “But it’s not going to hurt us as much as losing [the liaison] would.”

Only about half of the schools with parent liaisons have access to Title I funding. Hyattsville Middle School is among 29 that do not.

Golden said she would bring in volunteers and bilingual staff from elsewhere in the school system to interpret at as many meetings and events as possible. At best, she said, it would a stop-gap solution. Lorenzo’s absences “will significantly impact our ability to properly serve our Latino population,” Golden said. “Am I concerned? Very.”

By N.C. Aizenman and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; C04

Latinos anxious over end of school liaisons in Pr. George’s