Prince George’s schools hires diversity officer to focus on Latino affairs


Maritza Gonzalez, the Prince George's County school system's Latino affairs director, talks with parents at Rogers Heights Elementary School on Friday in Bladensburg, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Rogers Heights Elementary School Principal Barbara Bottoms met with more than two dozen parents Friday morning to discuss the school’s new security system, plans for a fall dance and a meeting for parents with children in special education classes.

Then she passed the microphone to Mary Rivera, the school’s community outreach assistant, who translated everything into Spanish.

Of the 30 parents in the audience, three were black. The rest were Hispanic.

Over the past four years, the Hispanic population at the Bladensburg, Md., school has jumped from 68 percent to 83 percent.

Recognizing the changing demographics, Kevin Maxwell, the Prince George’s County school system’s chief executive officer, has hired Maritza E. Gonzalez as the system’s first diversity officer to focus on Latino affairs.

“We had a real need for a dedicated staff member to serve as liaison to our Latino community,” Maxwell said.

Gonzalez will be one of the first Latino affairs officers for any school system in the Washington region. Dana Tofig, a spokesman for Montgomery County schools, said the district’s Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships works with various ethnic groups, including the Latino community, to improve engagement but has no full-time Latino affairs officer. Neither does Fairfax County.

Bottoms introduced Gonzalez to parents on Friday. Gonzalez talked to parents about how she can help them navigate the school system and answer questions about the education of their children.

By the time Gonzalez finished her first school visit since being hired two weeks ago, she said she had a long list of items to take back to Maxwell.

Parents want more summer programs, an expansion of pre-kindergarten classes, additional support for special-needs students and — speaking to Gonzalez in Spanish — they asked for English classes for parents.

In her new role, Gonzalez will partner with the county government, businesses and organizations to provide academic and social support service to Latino children and their families. School officials said Gonzalez will also assess school system policies and procedures regarding diversity and develop new communication and outreach strategies.

The appointment comes after weeks of backlash from Hispanic parents and elected leaders, who criticized County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) for not naming a Latino to the reconfigured school board.

“I hope that she helps to address the needs of the growing student body here,” said state Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s). “I feel right now there’s a disconnect. With the new superintendent, hopefully this will bridge some of that disconnect that is going on in our schools.”

For the past 20 years, the county has become known as a beacon for middle-class African Americans. But Hispanics are responsible for most of the growth in Prince George’s County over the past decade.

Over the past 10 years, the county’s white population dropped by 50,000 people, while the county gained 72,000 Hispanics. There are now more Hispanics than whites in Prince George’s.

Hispanics make up at least 17 percent of the county’s population of nearly a million and about 25 percent of the school system’s 123,000 students.

Educators with a high percentage of Hispanic students in their schools said they welcome Gonzalez and are excited about the new position.

“Anything that helps to increase transparency, communication and the delivery of services that are not only available to our students but to the parents as well would be appreciated,” said James Richardson, the principal at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, where 65 percent of the students are Hispanic.

Richardson said that earlier this week, a student from El Salvador enrolled at his school. The child attended school only through the second grade before moving to Prince George’s. He was placed in an eighth-grade class at Buck Lodge, Richardson said.

“These are the type of challenges that we are facing,” Richardson said.

Gonzalez, who recently completed her doctoral degree in higher education, student affairs and international education policy at the University of Maryland, is a first-generation college student. She has worked on three federally funded education research projects, served as a Latino parent-empowerment liaison and coordinated a peer mentoring program at the University of Maryland.

“We all know that our students are not performing at a level where they could be,” said Gonzalez, who plans to organize mentoring and tutoring programs.

She will develop “a more robust program for college access for Latino students,” improve recruitment of Latinos in the school system and help design and implement academic initiatives that affect Hispanic students, such as a Spanish dual immersion program.

“We have all kinds of interesting proposals that we’re looking at, and we want to engage the community,” said Board of Education Chairman Segun Eubanks. “We think this position is a good way to move us in that direction.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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