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Educating Latinos: An NPR Special Report
Part One: Communities and the growing Hispanic population

audio icon Listen to Part 1 of the series, reported by NPR's Claudio Sanchez.

Gainesville, Ga., approximately 60 miles northeast of Atlanta. Map: Katie Parker, NPR Online

Gainesville's Bilingual Newspaper, <i>Mexico Lindo</i>
The newspaper, Mexico Lindo, is one of many Gainesville enterprises meeting the commercial and information needs of the area's growing Latino population. Unlike many "ethnic" language newspapers, Mexico Lindo carries local news and information in a bilingual format, pairing the same feature in Spanish and English.

Mexico Lindo View enlargement

Rafaela Perez, Gainesville High School's first Hispanic homecoming queen.
Photo: Mexico Lindo

Banco Familiar is a branch of Gainesville Bank and Trust. The bank is totally bilingual, and styled to attract Hispanic customers. The building was a mechanic's garage that had stood empty over the past 20 years.
Photo: Mexico Lindo

Nov. 25, 2002 -- In towns like Gainesville, low-paying jobs are drawing thousands of Hispanics to the community each year, and the city's schools have few resources, and even less guidance on how best to teach the children of these immigrants. In part one of the series, NPR Education Correspondent Claudio Sanchez reports from Gainesville, in Hall County, Ga. Sanchez's report is the first in a five-part series, "Educating Latinos," airing on consecutive Mondays on All Things Considered.

Immigrants have a long history in Gainesville, and the community values the contributions of immigrants. The northeast Georgia city is a window to the ethnic makeup of modern-day America, as well as the experiences of Latino immigrants.

In Gainesville, Lyman Hall Elementary School's "newcomers class" welcomes at least one new student each week. Often the student speaks Spanish, but little or no English. For example, nine-year-old Paula has recently arrived at the school, and what teachers know about her is on a single sheet of paper from her school in Mexico. The file indicates that while she speaks no English, she is literate in Spanish. The information is thin, but it is all Paula's Gainesville teachers will have to go on as they develop her education plan.

Paula's education experience is typical of many Latino immigrant children in the United States. Speaking little or no English, they enter under-funded American schools that are struggling to educate them. Jorge Chapa, immigration scholar and head of the Latino Studies Program at Indiana University, says the schools are "well intentioned and motivated to help. They just don't know how and they don't have the money" to educate non-English speaking immigrant children. The relatively low educational attainment of Latino immigrants, as well as those born in the United States is testimony to this fact.

The education crisis for Latinos in the United States is a significant problem, says Chapas: "Latinos are 20 percent of the school-age population. That's too big a group to have fail in our schools." Hall County, Ga., and the town of Gainesville are in the midst of this crisis. Poultry plants and other low-wage jobs have attracted thousands of Mexican immigrants.

Since the late-1980s, the Mexican population has grown from a few hundred to nearly 30,000 of Hall County's 140,000 residents. The impact of this population growth is striking on the area's economy as well as the schools. A 10-mile stretch of Atlanta Highway 13 that runs through the county is now known as "Little Mexico." Banks, restaurants, stores and strip malls that cater to the Latino community line the highway.

The effect on the local economy has been positive, but the impact on the county's schools is problematic. While a comfort level has been reached by Latinos in the economy and schools, major problems still exist. For example, Lyman Hall School officials point out that 90 percent of its students are Spanish speaking, and its goal is to have them fluent in English quickly. But the school has no bilingual curriculum, and the standardized tests all the students must take are in English.

With a large Latino population in the school and the school system, school officials disagree over the educational strategy for their Latino students. Questions arise over how much assistance to Latino students should be made in Spanish, or whether English should be mandatory. Neusa Wendt, a Brazilian-born teacher at Lyman Hall, argues that educators help Latino students by raising their sights, not isolating them. She has started a program to identify gifted and talented Latinos at her school. Yet in the school district as a whole, where Latinos make up 20 percent of the student population, only 2 percent are in advanced academic programs.

Learning to read and write in English is a critical element in the success of Latino students in the United States. However, the window of opportunity for academic success begins to close for most students by the time they leave middle school. On that issue, no one disagrees.

In Depth

browse for more NPR coverage Browse for other NPR stories about Hispanics in the United States.

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More Learn about all the stories in this series.

More Resources for Part 1 and the entire series.