Prince George's, Md., Schools Laying Off Many Latino Parent Liaisons

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

For two years, Benjamin Santamaria helped Spanish-speaking parents and students at University Park Elementary in Hyattsville navigate the public school system. This school year, those parents and students will be without him.

Santamaria is among the 275 employees being laid off to help the Prince George's County school system balance its $1.7 billion budget. Officials are also closing eight schools and ending or curtailing school programs.

The school system is laying off administrators, instructional specialists, support staff and teachers. But the biggest chunk of those let go, about 120, are paid parent liaisons, including Santamaria.

Liaisons are one way schools in the Washington region and throughout the country have sought to involve Latino immigrants, the nation's fastest-growing ethnic population, as well as parents generally. In 2006, Prince George's officials placed a liaison in each of the county's more than 200 schools in an effort to boost parental involvement. But the program is being rolled back to save nearly $7.6 million.

It's tough to quantify how parent liaisons affect student performance, but Santamaria said he engaged parents with an array of events, a computer class and tutoring for students, in addition to interpreting and translating documents. The son of Dominican immigrants, Santamaria is fluent in Spanish and able to communicate with many of University Park's nonnative-English speakers. Nearly a third of the school's students are Hispanic.

Although talk of layoffs had swirled around the cash-strapped school system for months, Santamaria said he thought his bilingual skills would protect him. But he found out in mid-June that he was losing his job. Parents and students at the school were stunned, he said.

"When they found out I was leaving, they didn't understand why," Santamaria said. "I didn't know what to say."

The reason is simple, school board members said: There's no money.

"I think the situation we're in now was really no surprise," said Board of Education member Donna Hathaway Beck (At Large), who voted to approve the budget last month. "We were advised that we would go into lean years, and this is the beginning of the lean years . . . It is symptomatic of what the entire nation is facing."

But as the region's Latino population continues to surge, advocates say bilingual parent liaisons are needed even more. More than 17 percent of Prince George's 130,000 public school students are Hispanic, according to state data, up from about 6 percent a decade ago. Nearly a third of the county's elementary schools are more than 30 percent Hispanic, and at least 16 are majority-Hispanic.

"These families need so much more than just an opportunity to participate in a school event," Glorianna Rios, a parent liaison at Carrollton Elementary School, wrote in a letter to the Board of Education. "They need someone to help them advocate for their children and themselves and someone to empower them because they don't believe they have any power. How can they be empowered if we are limiting the resources they will have available to them, in their own language?"

A school administrator who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject said the losses would hurt the schools as well as the parents.

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