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At least 40,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students identify as Latino. Many were struggling before the coronavirus pandemic and studies show they have now fallen further behind in school. WFAE examines the obstacles facing Latino students and the resources available to help them succeed.

Latino students' progress could determine the success of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Magaly Rodas, who is from Guatemala, says a language barrier has made it tough to support her son at school.
Maria Ramirez Uribe
WFAE/La Noticia
Magaly Rodas, who is from Guatemala, says a language barrier has made it tough to support her son at school.

Esta historia está disponible en español en La Noticia.

The success of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rests heavily on how its Latino students fare. They’re the fastest growing segment of the student body, with 40,000 students classified as Hispanic.

Families who were, in many cases, trying to overcome language barriers and cultural gaps before the pandemic hit were forced to take an even larger role in their children’s education. And it happened while the community faced higher risk from COVID-19, with many adults working front-line jobs.

Advocates say too often they did all that without adequate support.

For instance, Magaly Rodas says she tries to stay involved in her son’s education. He’s 10 years old and a fourth-grader at a CMS elementary school where two-thirds of the students are Latino.

But the Guatemalan mother of three says she can rarely find a Spanish interpreter to help her communicate. Rodas says she calls the school and is told “No Spanish” or she gets put on hold and eventually the call drops.

“When I go to the school and they speak to me in English, I don’t know what they’re saying,” she said in Spanish to our reporter. “I asked for someone who speaks Spanish, and there isn’t anyone. So they speak to me in English and I don’t understand.”

Educators with the Latin American Leadership Education Committee say that’s a common experience in CMS. The group emerged about six years ago from a Queens University workshop on challenges facing Charlotte’s Latino community.

Nhora Gomez-Saxon
Maria Ramirez Uribe
WFAE/La Noticia
Nhora Gomez-Saxon

Nhora Gómez-Saxon, a member of the committee and a teacher at South Mecklenburg High, says she once called several schools to see how they’d respond to a Spanish-speaking parent.

“I was, ‘Español, por favor? Español, por favor?,’ ” she recalls. “Click.”

In about three dozen of the district’s 180 schools, Latino students outnumber Black and white classmates. Gómez-Saxon says 80% of “schools where the Latinos were a big number didn’t answer the phone in Spanish, didn’t find somebody to speak in Spanish, and hung up on the parent who was calling.”

This was before the pandemic, when helping families connect with their children’s schools was a challenge. Last year, with students learning from home, an even bigger burden fell on parents. That included many who didn’t speak English, were not adept with technology or worked hours that didn’t allow them to supervise remote lessons.

All of that led to a big drop in test scores in 2021.

"So we were behind," Gomez-Saxon said, "but now we’re in a state of emergency.”

Remote learning with barriers

When classes went online, CMS sent laptops home with students. It would be the first time Magaly’s son would have a computer at home.

She says she was given instructions in English, which she didn’t understand. Spanish-speaking neighbors with children in the same school also struggled, she said.

Magaly says a Spanish-speaking CMS employee called to explain the directions, but she said they weren't very helpful and it was difficult to understand over the phone.

Eventually, Magaly went to the Latin American Coalition and received the help she needed. But she emphasizes it wasn’t CMS that helped.

“The school said, ‘Everything’s good,’ but they don’t know the process we had to go through and how complicated it was so our kids could do online school,” she said.

Test scores show big setbacks

Last year, after a year of mostly remote learning, 85% of CMS Latino students fell short of the reading scores considered on track for future success and 87% fell below that mark in math.

Superintendent Earnest Winston

At a September school board meeting, Superintendent Earnest Winston identified that as the greatest challenge for the district. Latino students not only fell dramatically from the previous year, but they didn’t do as well as Latino students statewide, Winston said.

“In terms of exactly why, that is under exploration and there’s more work to be done to figure out exactly why that is the case,” he said at the time.

In December, the school board voted on a few crucial academic priorities. Improving reading scores for Latino third-graders is one of them.

But just over halfway through this school year, figuring out solutions remains a work in progress.

‘Latino’ covers a large, diverse group

If the Latino students in CMS were their own school district, they’d be among the largest in the state. While enrollment has declined among white and Black students, the number of Latino students in CMS keeps climbing.

Those 40,000 students are a diverse group. Some are fluent in English and have lots of family support.

And some are thriving despite obstacles.

Carlos Diaz, a senior at South Mecklenburg High, at an October event showcasing the stories and talents of Spanish-speaking students.
Ann Doss Helms
Carlos Diaz, a senior at South Mecklenburg High, at an October event showcasing the stories and talents of Spanish-speaking students.

Carlos Diaz, for instance, came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 2017 speaking little English. He says the pandemic was tough, but his teachers at South Mecklenburg High helped him through it.

“They try to help you by making classes so you can come if you don’t speak English really well, like tutoring. And they find people to help you,” he said.

South Meck alone has more than 1,300 Latino students. In October, the school showcased some of their accomplishments. Diaz, for instance, is part of an after-school club that helps English-speakers learn Spanish.

“People that are interested in our cultures, we are more than happy to teach them. And we’re happy to teach them Spanish, ‘cause there’s a lot of Spanish-speakers here,” he said.

South Meck offers Spanish classes for native speakers, knowing many can speak the language but not read or write it well. Proficiency in Spanish and English gives them an edge in the job market.

Challenges can snowball

This year, CMS has roughly 25,500 students classified as English learners, the vast majority from Spanish-speaking homes. It’s the highest number ever in a district that consistently leads the state.

For families like that of Rodas, other challenges combine with language barriers.

Rodas dropped out of school after the first grade. She gave birth to her son when she was only 13 years old. And because of her age, she couldn’t get his birth certificate. She says she came to Charlotte in 2016 seeking asylum after her brother was murdered.

“I never wanted to move to the United States. I’ve always said this wasn’t my dream,” Rodas said. “I thank God that I’m here. But this wasn’t my dream. I saw my future, my roots, my whole life in Guatemala.”

Her son was 5 at the time. But without his birth certificate, and with the language barrier, Rodas says enrolling him in school was nearly impossible.

Some gave up during remote learning

Rodas found support in the Latin American Coalition, which provided translation and advice. Alba Sanchez, a coalition staffer who works with newcomers like Rodas, watched families who were already struggling to connect with their children’s schools give up once schools moved to remote classes.

Alba Sanchez
Courtesy of Alba Sanchez
Alba Sanchez

“If they were not even connected before the pandemic, it was completely lost during the pandemic time,” Sanchez said.

Jose Hernandez-Paris, executive director of the Latin American Coalition, says that when parents couldn’t help, some students bailed out on remote learning.

“They don’t have anyone to interpret or translate, so they didn’t understand what was going on in class and they would get frustrated and drop out,” he said. “A large number of kids did that.”

That left them further behind this year when in-person classes returned.

Sports can be a motivator

CMS leaders say they’re counting on community groups like the coalition to help rebuild — or just build — connections with Spanish-speaking families and help students catch up.

Latin American Coalition
Jose Hernandez-Paris

Hernandez-Paris says the coalition hopes to help with tutoring, but students need more than academics. But he remembers his own experience as a CMS student trying to learn the language and says academics alone aren’t enough.

“When we had a soccer team it was important for me to be on the soccer team. That’s the reason I went to school, was to play soccer,” he said.

Hernandez-Paris says he wants other newcomers to the country to have that opportunity, even if their education was interrupted and they don't yet have the grade-point average required for participation in sports. That may also mean providing transportation for students whose families don’t have a car or whose parents work evening shifts and can’t pick them up.

Fredy Romero, who teaches math and biology to English learners at South Meck, agrees sports are important.

“They need to play. They need to be outside,” Romero said. “And that is a key component of our culture. We want to have friends. We want to be together playing.”

The struggle to find Latino staff

CMS is hiring 34 Spanish-speaking family advocates this school year. So far, the district has filled 16 of those jobs. But the district also faces a shortage of Latino teachers and administrators at a time when simply finding teachers has been a struggle.

In a district where 28.5% of students are Latino, only 2.2% of teachers — and six-tenths of a percent of principals, or one out of 180 — are Latino.

The challenge is similar across North Carolina, where 19% of students and only about 2% of teachers are Latino.

Gov. Roy Cooper formed a task force that spent 2020 studying ways to improve those numbers for all teachers and students of color, saying diversity is essential to success. That panel issued a long list of recommendations a year ago, saying the state needs to get more Latino and Black people in educator preparation programs, then do a better job of ensuring they finish, get jobs in the state and stick with the profession.

Gómez-Saxon, the South Meck teacher, says the fiercely competitive job market puts public schools at a disadvantage.

“If you are bilingual you have better possibilities, more money in a bank or a telecommunication company,” she said. “Second, the working conditions are not good. If you have another language you are better off somewhere else.”

‘The invisible tax’

Gómez-Saxon, Romero and South Meck colleague Diana Toro say the small number of Latinos who do work for CMS carry extra burdens. They may be expected to translate for colleagues who don’t speak Spanish and call families who don’t speak English.

Romero says he sometimes works after hours to help students learn how to navigate Charlotte’s bus system or spends weekends taking students to visit college campuses.

Nhora Gomez-Saxon, Diana Toro and Fredy Romero (left-right), all teachers at South Mecklenburg High, are active in the Latin American Leadership Education Committee.
Maria Ramirez Uribe
WFAE/La Noticia
Nhora Gomez-Saxon, Diana Toro and Fredy Romero (left-right), all teachers at South Mecklenburg High, are active in the Latin American Leadership Education Committee.

That’s common, according to the state task force report, which dubbed the added work “the invisible tax” on educators of color.

The group would like to see CMS use some of its federal COVID-19 money to pay bilingual educators for the extra work they do.

But they also acknowledge that not all of the barriers come from the district. Toro talked about a time before the pandemic when South Meck held a series of sessions for parents on topics such as financial aid and using the computer to follow students’ progress. Each session was duplicated: one in English and one in Spanish.

“We actually had professionals coming to our school, speaking in Spanish to our parents,” Toro said. “Out of those 20 (sessions) that we had, we had probably two Latino parents coming to the conferences.”

Toro and Gómez-Saxon aren’t sure why those efforts failed.

“That has been a frustration that we have been discussing a lot and we have been like ‘What can we do to make our parents come?’ Maybe, I don’t know …,” Toro said.

Gómez-Saxon jumped in: “Maybe that’s not the way. Maybe they don’t have to come. Maybe CMS has to go to where they are.” 

Shifting the vision

Gina Esquivel is a Charlotte leadership consultant who meets with Latino business and civic leaders to talk about challenges and opportunities. She says they’re well aware of the need to help students catch up, but ultimately the challenge is to set their goals higher than passing classes and getting a job. She wants to see Latino families and the larger community stop seeing that community as service workers and “really see them as an intellectual powerhouse that could bring a lot of innovation.”

This year will bring an opportunity to air ideas about making that happen: Delayed elections for six seats on the school board take place this fall. Mecklenburg County has yet to elect a Latino school board member. But the students of CMS just chose the first Latino student as the board’s nonvoting adviser for 2022.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.
Maria Ramirez Uribe is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte.