Latinos anxious over end of school liaisons in Pr. George's

By N.C. Aizenman and Michael Birnbaum
Sunday, March 7, 2010

As word spreads of the recent decision by the Prince George's Board of Education to eliminate 120 full-time parent liaisons next year to save money, parents and staff at schools with large Latino populations are increasingly worried about how they will cope.

In her eight years at Hyattsville Middle School, liaison Rosa Lorenzo, 48, has often been the only person able to interpret for the roughly one-third of parents who speak only Spanish.

When a learning disability was diagnosed in eighth-grader Fernando Ocono in November, his mother said, it was Lorenzo who kept her involved in the school's response plan by explaining the procedures and regularly updating her on the boy's progress.

When a teacher noticed that seventh-grader Christian Gonzalez had grown distracted and depressed in October, Lorenzo not only found out the source of the boy's anguish -- his father was going blind from untreated diabetes -- but also searched for clinics that could provide low-cost treatment without health insurance. Today the father is on the mend, and Christian recently made the honor roll.

"It will harm me so much not to have her," Christian's mother, Laura Castro, 36, said in Spanish.

"I consult her on everything -- how to understand Christian's report card, what after-school programs he should sign up for . . .," said Castro, who makes a living collecting scrap metal. "Who will I talk to when she's gone? I will feel powerless."

The Latino community's growing anxiety over the board's decision highlights Prince George's uneasy transition from a majority-black county that has been a magnet for affluent African Americans to a county increasingly characterized by low-income Latino immigrant enclaves.

Changing demographics

African Americans have been losing ground in the school system since 2003, when their numbers peaked at 78 percent of the student population. By contrast, the Hispanic student population is growing rapidly, doubling between 2002 and 2009. Nearly one in five Prince George's public school students are Hispanic; some schools have concentrations as high as 98 percent.

Tension over how schools should serve newcomers without neglecting the needs of established groups, such as the county's substantial number of low-income African Americans, surfaced at the meeting last week during which board members -- none of whom are Latino -- overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to preserve 40 out of 120 liaisons who are bilingual.

"To pick and choose a group" of liaisons to keep, said board member Pat Fletcher (District 3), "is even more devastating than letting them all go," calling it "ironic" that only "Hispanic positions" would be saved.

She explained in an interview several days later that she was a strong supporter of the liaison program as a whole. But she said that she saw many English-speaking parents having trouble navigating the school system, too.

"It's the same issue. In terms of [an American] mother who had bad experiences in school, dropped out and just had no clue in terms of the school system, it's the same," she said.

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