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NC Study Finds Latinos, Immigrants Face Unique Challenges Learning From Home

Sussy Borrego teaches her students about shapes at Charlotte Bilingual Preschool.
Charlotte Bilingual Preschool
Sussy Borrego teaches her students about shapes at Charlotte Bilingual Preschool.

When school started in August, Susana Borrego, a teacher at the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, knew her students would need her in the classroom, pandemic or not. Miss Sussy, as her students call her, often shifts from Spanish to English during lessons because most of the children are newcomers and from Spanish-only homes.

“We work with a population (that is) high-risk,” Borrego said. “We have to translate all the time. Make it easy for them. And, the work never ends.”

Borrego, originally from Peru, knows what it’s like to shift from one culture to the next and the disadvantages that come with it, especially for parents.

“It’s hard for them,” Borrego said. “(It’s) the language barrier and some of the applications.”

The pandemic brought those and other limitations to the forefront of the school. A few weeks ago, the school’s director, Banu Valladares, emailed staff and told them there was an opportunity to help some of the students and their families, but it would require some teachers to come back in person to teach.

“I was saying, ‘Yes, I’ll come back. I’m gonna be one of them,’ because I know that the only way we can pursue that is with interactions. Daily interactions,” Borrego said.

Borrego sees in the classroom what Wake Forest University professor Betina Cutaia Wilkinson found in her research: Latino families are having a harder time than many other families during virtual learning.

Wilkinson, who teaches in the Department of Politics and International Affairs, examined the educational effects of the pandemic in Latinos in Forsyth County. She and a group of her students held interviews with a total of 40 parents, teachers and local nonprofit leaders. Nineteen of them were conducted in Spanish.

During interviews, some parents shared that they experienced barriers in helping them with their homework because they weren’t comfortable enough with English.

“When the teacher is teaching them on, you know, some information, the parents may not really be able to help them as much as they would like with the homework, so older siblings are trying to step in to help,” Wilkinson said. “Sometimes (it’s) effective and other times it’s not as effective, as opposed to having the teacher right there face to face giving, you know, clear instruction.”

Wilkinson also found it’s not just language barriers that keep these kids from learning, but also access to technology and parents' long workdays. She found many parents didn’t feel comfortable with the technology and that many students depend on school-distributed computers and Wi-Fi hotspots that aren’t always reliable.

“The hotspots weren't always working after 8 o'clock at night, when the parents, who were working all day, could help the kids with the homework,” she said. “(For some) they just stopped because it was just on overload and they couldn't handle all the bandwidth that was necessary to carry out the work.”

Going back to Borrego’s comment about “the work never ends,” Wilkinson also found that to be true among the teachers her team interviewed. Many teachers shared they were working around the clock trying to stay in touch with Latino families as much as possible to help them navigate online learning, too.

“Based on my findings, I would say we need to play a significant emphasis in providing increased resources to, first of all, teachers," Wilkinson said. "So, then we have more teaching assistants, so they can actually follow up with the parents to communicate more thoroughly about what’s going on."

In the spring, Banu Valladares, Charlotte Bilingual's director, saw how her Latino students were falling through the cracks. The preschool’s goal is to help Spanish-speaking newcomers and immigrants transition to the American school system. That’s why she says having these high-risk students back is so important in bridging that divide.

“You know, you walk our hallways and you see 72 to 144 children learning," Valladares said. "... What would they have been doing if they were not here? They would have been isolated at home, fearful, whatever. Here, they are focused and learning.”

Getting the students back was no easy feat.

The Charlotte Bilingual Preschool is funded by Meck Pre-K, a county program that provides free pre-kindergarten to eligible children in Mecklenburg County. Normally, the preschool runs out of Hickory Grove Elementary, so Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is, in a way, Charlotte Bilingual’s landlord.

Due to the pandemic, CMS was all online, so Charlotte Bilingual lost its classrooms for the school year. In September, Charlotte Bilingual announced a partnership with Thompson Child & Family Focus. It would allow the preschool to resume in-person operations by leasing some classrooms and, in turn, stay funded.

Valladares and the rest of Charlotte Bilingual’s staff will know in December, when the school gets results from assessments, whether the attention, access to technology and cultural awareness has paid off.

Laura Brache is a Report for America corps member and covers immigration and the Latino community in Charlotte for WFAE and La Noticia.

Laura Brache works with WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte, through Report for America to cover immigration and deportation issues facing the Latino community. She also reports on the Charlotte immigration court, one of the toughest in the nation with the second-highest deportation rate in the country in 2019.