Rise In Spanish Speakers Has School Trying To Adapt

Jan 4, 2012
Originally published on January 4, 2012 8:52 pm

Year over year, the number of Spanish-speaking kindergarteners at Vardaman Elementary School in northeast Mississippi has been on the rise.

Census numbers show the South has the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the country. Now, Vardaman Elementary is about to become Mississippi's first predominantly Latino primary school, and that's posing special challenges when it comes to finding teachers who can help Spanish-speaking students adapt to the American classroom.

Vardaman Takes Its Own Approach

Resources are scarce in the school's small farming community of Vardaman. But of the town's approximately 1,300 residents, at least one-third are Hispanic — and that number is growing.

Over at Vardaman Elementary, many of Angela Barnette's second-grade students are American-born, but close to half are also native Spanish speakers. It's a language Barnette doesn't speak, but she does her best to encourage it. She says she often picks books with English and Spanish words to read to the class.

"They love it when they see the teacher who can't speak [Spanish]," Barnette says. "It makes them feel special that they can say those words and the others can't. They love that."

Across the country, debate continues over how best to teach English-language learners. Some states, like Arizona, have English-immersion policies mandating that no Spanish be spoken in the classroom. Other states, such as Texas, use a bilingual approach. Mississippi leaves it up to individual districts to determine the best method.

The 'Cyclical Issue' Of Bilingual Education

Vardaman Elementary Principal Pamela Lee says a big concern for her is finding bilingual instructors.

"I had one position for a certified teacher open last year and I interviewed 10 people," Lee says. "No one in that pool of 10 people was bilingual."

Teachers are already in short supply in Mississippi's rural areas, and Lee says a starting salary of less than $30,000 makes it even harder to recruit bilingual educators.

She says she ultimately filled the opening with a non-bilingual teacher. After all, Mississippi doesn't actually require schools with Spanish speakers to employ bilingual instructors.

Education researcher Megan Hopkins says that's a problem.

"Bilingual instruction isn't valued, so teachers are not pursuing that credential," Hopkins says. "My work shows that likely, [as] we have fewer and fewer [bilingual instructors], that may not be a good thing for kids."

Hopkins, who studies at Northwestern University, says schools need Spanish-speaking educators to help create the next generation of bilingual doctors, executives and teachers.

"It's sort of a cyclical issue," she says.

Working To Meet Demand

Annie Anderson is Vardaman Elementary's one bilingual teacher, and as the Hispanic population has grown, so have her responsibilities. Her job is to improve the English of every Spanish-speaking student at the school, which means coaching 170 students one by one through their English assignments every week.

It's a big job for one person, and it has educators worrying that if they can't find more bilingual teachers like Anderson, Mississippi schools will just fall further behind.

Copyright 2013 Mississippi Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.etv.state.ms.us/index.html.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and other Southern states are struggling to keep up with a Hispanic population boom. Among many of the challenges states face is finding enough teachers who can help Spanish-speaking students adapt to an American classroom. That is especially difficult in rural areas. In Mississippi, where resources are scarce, Hispanic student enrollment has skyrocketed.

Mississippi Public Broadcasting's Annie Gilbertson takes us to one school where white teachers are the standard and bilingual education is the goal.

ANNIE GILBERTSON, BYLINE: Vardaman, Mississippi is tucked away in the northeast part of the state. It's a small farming community with a population of 1,300. At least a third of the residents are Hispanic and those numbers keep growing each year. You don't have to go far to see the changes.

ANGEL BARNETTE: OK, eyes this way and let's start.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PRACTICING PHONICS)

BARNETTE: Not the, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PRACTICING PHONICS)

BARNETTE: One more time...

GILBERTSON: Angel Barnette is a second grade teacher at Vardaman Elementary School. Each kindergarten class has had more Spanish-speakers than the year before. And Vardaman Elementary is about to become the first predominantly Latino elementary school in Mississippi.

For teachers like Barnette, new Spanish-speaking students mean new approaches to learning.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PRACTICING PHONICS)

BARNETTE: Only time that you can stick your tongue out at your teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GILBERTSON: Many of these students are American-born, but close to half the class is made up of native Spanish-speakers, a language Barnette doesn't speak but does her best to encourage. She says she often picks books with English and Spanish words to read to the class.

BARNETTE: They love it when they see the teacher who can't speak it, or say it in such a country drawl. 'Cause that - they don't roll off my tongue easily. It makes them feel special that they can say those words and the others can't. They love that.

GILBERTSON: Across the country, debate continues on how to best teach English-language learners. Some states, like Arizona, have English-immersion policies where no Spanish is spoken in the classroom. Other states, such as Texas, use a bilingual approach. Mississippi leaves it up to individual districts to determine the best method.

Vardaman Elementary principal Pamela Lee says a big concern for her is finding enough bilingual instructors.

PAMELA LEE: I worry about that every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEE: I had one position for a certified teacher open last year and I interviewed 10 people. And no one in that pool of 10 people was bilingual.

GILBERTSON: Rural teachers are already in short supply in Mississippi. The starting salary is under 30,000, and Lee says that makes it even harder to recruit bilingual educators. Lee ended up hiring another English-only teacher because Mississippi doesn't require schools with Spanish-speakers to employ a bilingual instructor.

And for education researchers, like Megan Hopkins, that's the problem.

DR. MEGAN HOPKINS: Bilingual instruction isn't valued, so teachers are not pursuing that credential. And my work shows that likely we have fewer and fewer of them. That may not be a good thing for kids.

GILBERTSON: Hopkins studies at Northwestern University. She says schools need Spanish-speaking educators to create the next generation of bilingual professionals - like doctors, executives and teachers.

HOPKINS: So, it's sort of this cyclical issue. And I think that grow your own policies, I fundamentally believe, are kind of the best for communities in local context.

GILBERTSON: Vardaman Elementary does have one bilingual teacher to help with the children of migrant workers. But as the Hispanic population has grown, so have Annie Anderson's responsibilities. Her job is to improve the English of every Spanish-speaking student in the school. Anderson says students can sound out words well, but struggle with understanding what it is they are reading.

ANNIE ANDERSON: What happened last in our story? Come on, what was going on? Remember art?

GILBERTSON: Once a week, Anderson coaches 170 students one-by-one through these English assignments.

Educators here in Mississippi worry schools will fall further behind if they can't find more bilingual teachers.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Gilbertson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.