The influx of Spanish-speakers to Hazleton, Pennsylvania, gained national attention when its mayor tried to punish landlords who rented to illegal immigrants.
But it’s not just the adults who are changing the area’s demographics. Their children have left the Hazleton School District with the challenging task of educating a flood of students who are not fluent in English.
The districts approach has not been bilingual education or a “sink or swim” immersion into regular classrooms.
Many of the new students end up in a room such as teacher Robin Frask’s science class.
“OK, who remembers what do we need for photosynthesis to occur? Sunlight? Sunlight. Water,” says the Hazleton newcomer during a recent class.
Frask, who has a dual certificate for teaching science and English as a second language, says teaching students who do not speak English fluently is a real challenge.
“I rely on them to translate for each other. It’s fun! That’s a nice way of putting it. I do not speak Spanish at all. It’s challenging,” she said. “They are a good group of students.”
Big changes in a short time
The student body in the Hazleton School District has changed a lot in just a few years.
One wave of immigration has prompted another: often the adults who choose Hazleton now have family or friends who relocated there and who recommend it as a quiet, safe place to raise a family and find a job.
About a third of the 10,000 students in the Hazleton School District are Hispanic, primarily from the Dominican Republic. The number of Hispanic students has nearly doubled from five years ago.
To help teachers such as Frask, the district brought in Joyce Ramos Gomez deAvila. A few minutes into the science class, deAvila takes center stage.
“Wow, you impress me. I’m hearing you speak English and it’s wonderful. I know I come every day and I interrupt your class and I really appreciate it. Anyway!”
DeAvila helps teachers learn how to teach students who don’t speak much English and who are growing up far from their home countries.
Many of the students grin and seem more relaxed as soon as deAvila starts speaking Spanish.
DeAvila says she helps teachers understand how to ease the students’ transition into their classes.
“You might think about the way that the test is presented. Instead of 50 questions, that we think of 27 really good questions. Because it takes longer for you to think in your mind in Spanish — or in any other language — then transfer it back again.”
Expanding facilities, extending welcome
The district is using federal money to pay for substitutes so teachers can spend more time in training. It’s also using funds from Washington to deal with a classroom squeeze.
Deputy Superintendent Francis Antonelli says the district has purchased a dozen modular classrooms, at about $20,000 a pop, this year. With transportation and setup — including laying the foundation, anchoring, wiring for technology and furnishing — the district has invested about $50,000 in each classroom trailer.
The startling demographic shift is evident at one school, Heights/Terrace Elementary and Middle School. The percentage of minority students in this school doubled to 70 percent in just five years.
Sharon Turse, the principal’s secretary, has watched the student body at Heights/Terrace change.
“Our idea here at Heights Terrace is to try and welcome everyone and the office is like the front porch of a home,” said Turse, who has lived in Hazleton all her life.
“Twenty-one years ago, we had two Spanish-speaking students in the school when I started,” she recalls. “Hazleton has changed. The complexion has changed. But you have to be used to change.”
Turse says the school is trying to encourage Spanish-speaking parents to get join the PTA and get more involved.
“A lot of times, they’re afraid to come into the building for fear that there’s no one here that speaks Spanish and they can’t communicate with us,” says Turse. “So we’re trying to let them know that we do have an interpreter here.”
More effective outreach
Back at the Hazleton Area School District Administration Office, Deputy Superintendent Antonelli is meeting with community leaders about how to reach Spanish-speaking parents and their children more effectively.
Jose Rodriguez, the president of Concerned Parents of the Hazleton Area, says it might look like parents don’t want to get involved..
“They do want to get involved, the problem is they can’t communicate,” he says. “And they feel intimidated when they walk into the district or, let’s say, a high school and they can’t communicate with a principal or the teacher.”
Rodriguez says parents don’t feel welcomed at schools as they do when they drop by his office.
“That’s the difference that we get from our office, they come in with open arms because it’s a better atmosphere. It’s a welcoming atmosphere,” he says. “I don’t think they get that same thing here. But it’s just a matter of the language barrier.”
Rodriguez adds that he was struck when he walked in to the high school recently and was asked for ID. Imagine what would happened if a parent didn’t have documentation, he says, or if she was just nervous about immigration officials.
The group talks about whether translators should meet parents at the front door. During the meeting, the district representatives seem fairly open to the suggestions they hear.
One family’s story
Grumilda Rodriguez sits in the lobby with the three sons she’s registering for school. Meanwhile, her daughter’s English is being evaluated in another room. Originally from the Dominican Republic, they just moved to Hazleton from New York.
Rodriguez’s 15-year old son, Alex ,translates. He asks his mother if it’s tough for her, as a non-English speaker, to bring her kids to register. He leans over and comforts his mother when tears well up in her eyes.
“She said that even though she doesn’t know how to speak and talk, that we help her and stuff. Cause we know English. And so even though she doesn’t know how to write English, speak English and stuff, that we still like being her children,” says Alex. “And that, hopefully, we’re going to go to college.”
He says his mother hasn’t studied English more because she’s a single mother. The family came to Hazleton because his uncle, who works in a factory here, said it’s cheaper and safer than New York. Alex explains that his mother doesn’t have a job, but she hopes to get work as a hairdresser.
“It’s kind of hard for her. Cause we always take like, how can I say this, every single opportunity that we get. It doesn’t matter how small it is, we like take it cause we don’t really have much, you know, help,” Alex says. “We don’t really have much help.”
And this family is just one of many the district will try to connect with this school year.