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Immigration changes face of local schools

Hispanic student numbers soar in Gainesville, Hall schools

POSTED: February 2, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Tom Reed The Times/

Blake Poole, a kindergarten paraprofessional at Myers Elementary School, talks to a group of mostly Hispanic students. The number of Hispanic students in the Gainesville and Hall County school systems has dramatically increased in recent years, while the numbers is neighboring counties has remained steady.

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GAINESVILLE -- White County schools had 34 Hispanics systemwide in 2001. That number could be found in just two classrooms today in some Gainesville and Hall County schools.

The number of Hispanics has more than doubled in the White County system since that year, according to fall enrollment statistics recently released by the Georgia Department of Education.
But the numbers are not near as encompassing as in the Gainesville and Hall County districts, which far outpace surrounding counties in that demographic trend.

According to the state numbers, Hispanics make up 34 percent of Hall's enrollment and 53 percent of Gainesville's, compared to 2 percent for White, 3.5 percent for Dawson County and 6 percent for Banks and Lumpkin counties.

Habersham County is not far behind, however, at 20 percent. The percentage of Hispanic students there six years ago was 12 percent.

Doug Bachtel, a noted demographer with the University of Georgia in Athens, attributed the large Hispanic populations in Gainesville-Hall County to several factors, including proximity to Atlanta and the job opportunities, such as in landscaping and construction, that accompany that closeness. Also, Hispanics have been drawn to Gainesville-Hall's entrenched poultry industry.

"You put all those together and you've got sort of a magnet that has drawn Hispanics here," Bachtel said. "The interesting thing about migration is that it occurs in streams. Once a stream gets started, it tends to increase over time. So, historically (Gainesville-Hall) has been on the radar screen for a lot of Hispanics."

Plus, as Hispanics settle into the area, they become comfortable here and favorable word spreads to others considering a move. The burst of Hispanics in Gainesville-Hall has presented some challenges for the school systems. The districts have had to spend more money for English for Speakers of Other Languages teachers and new classrooms.

For example, regarding bricks and mortar, Hispanics made up 77 percent of the enrollment growth this year alone in Hall, or 545 or 708 students. The smaller of the two numbers is still equal to the size of a small elementary school.

Meanwhile, the number of white and black students has remained fairly constant through the years.
Will Schofield, Hall County's superintendent, raised the enrollment issue in an Oct. 30 meeting with the Oakwood City Council last month.

He, along with Hall County Board of Education members, asked council members to consider demographics more carefully when considering residential developments. Council members, along with City Manager Stan Brown, said they would.

During the meeting, Schofield presented data that showed schools containing Oakwood city limits as having rising numbers of Hispanic and "economically disadvantaged" students. "We all believe we should help the less fortunate, but what we're talking about is the disproportionate nature of what we're picking up," he told the group.

Schofield added that he wasn't singling out Oakwood. "We deal with this issue" with all area cities, he said. "From a global perspective, it's kind of frightening what has happened to our schools the last 10 years," he added.

Judy Forbes, superintendent of Habersham County schools, said her system typically has had to contend with growth issues. But she added that the district now must also face challenges of ever-increasing diversity.

The school system must be "able to meet those challenges and at the same time be able to (push) those who need the strong academic challenges," she said. Forbes, who is retiring at the end of this school year, said the district tries to do that by providing "all kinds of ... instruction," to students.

Schofield said that Hall County is "constantly looking for (demographic) trends in our community that are unique."

"The fact is the proportions of our student body that are economically disadvantaged and speaking a native language other than English are growing significantly faster than those in many of our neighboring counties," he said.

"Inadequate resources, rigid programming requirements and accountability models that do not take into account transient populations or individual student academic growth become problematic under these circumstances," Schofield said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act governs accountability for schools, placing sanctions on schools that routinely don't meet proficiency standards in math and English/language arts. The bill is up for reauthorization, with elected officials kicking around a bevy of changes.

One of the major ones addresses English-language learners. There is talk about extending the time that districts could test students in their native language from three to five years. Schools are now judged largely on how they performing on basic-skills standardized tests given annually.

Despite the challenges, the Gainesville and Hall County systems have put in place numerous programs to address rising Hispanic enrollments. The city system, for example, established its Phoenix Academy for newly arrived immigrants who have little or no formal schooling in their home country.

Hall County has set up "newcomer academies" at several of schools with high numbers of Hispanic students and plans to set up "language acquisition labs" designed to better prepare Hispanic students for a world of English academics. "It's a phenomenal job the school district is doing with a difficult challenge," said Raymond Akridge, principal of Myers Elementary School.

Akridge is a retired longtime educator who is serving out a two-year principal's post at Myers. He also runs an educational consulting firm in his hometown of Watkinsville. "I have so many feelings about this, because I don't get into the immigration stuff," he said. "That's not the role of the school. We don't ask questions, we don't check backgrounds or anything like that ... we're not in that business.

"We're in the business of kids are here and they've got to be able to get skills to function in a democratic society. And the other becomes the work of the politicians, as to what you doing about them being here."



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