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Monday, April 17, 2006

UNCP symposium addresses ESL education issues

Teachers and principals are the key to success for the surging population of non-English speaking school children, said Lizbeth Alfaro.

A Costa Rica native, Alfaro was the first Latino Teacher of the Year for North Carolina in 2004-05. She conducted a workshop on March 2 at the 2nd Annual Second Language and Minorities Symposium at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

From left: Education Dean Zoe Locklear, Jose Gomez, conference coordinator, keynote speaker Dr. Regina Cortina and Dr. Jane Huffman, chair of the Department of Education.

From left: Education Dean Zoe Locklear, Jose Gomez, conference coordinator, keynote speaker Dr. Regina Cortina and Dr. Jane Huffman, chair of the Department of Education.

“Teachers have the power in classrooms to make children feel welcome, to feel good about themselves and to learn,” Alfaro said. “Principals have the power to make a school multicultural.”

The rising tide of Latino immigration to North Carolina has flooded into the public schools. Approximately 200 public school teachers, future teachers and administrators attended the symposium including Elementary school teacher Brian Freeman of Peterson Elementary School in nearby Red Springs, N.C.

“I would say that Spanish is the first language for 25 percent of our students,” said Freeman, who was the National Education Association Teacher of the Year in 2003. “We are here to learn news strategies to help our students and their families.”

Without special strategies, every school day will be “another day of frustration” for English Language Learners, said Jose Gomez, symposium co-organizer and coordinator of UNCP’s Spanish Education program.

“We know teachers are busy, so we were very pleased with the turnout at the symposium,” Gomez said. “The migration of Spanish-speaking people is not new in America, but it is in North Carolina. We have a lot to learn to close the achievement gap for all minority groups.”

“A university is good place to maintain and continue a meaningful dialogue with our teachers,” he said. “We must break down the fear and resistance to educate all children.”

Keynote speaker Dr. Regina Cortina, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, gave an update on Latino demographics in North Carolina.

  • There are 600,000 Spanish-speaking people in North Carolina and 150,000 children in public schools.
  • The two main groups of school-aged immigrant children are the very young and high school freshman who lack English language skills.
  • Global economic changes are forcing a migration of Mexicans from regions that have never exported workers before, and they are even poorer.
  • The “closing” of the border has restricted visits home for Mexican workers and caused men to bring their families rather than suffer long separations.
  • North Carolina public schools lag far behind those in Texas, California and Arizona in adopting accommodations for non-English speakers.
  • Only 65 percent of Spanish-speaking migrants in North Carolina are from Mexico. There are significant differences among Spanish-speaking immigrants, even from within Mexico.

A Stanford University graduate, Dr. Cortina is an example of how students can thrive despite having limited English skills when she came to the U.S.

Lizbeth Alfaro, first Latino N.C. Teacher of the Year, with Education Dean Zoe Locklear.

Lizbeth Alfaro, first Latino N.C. Teacher of the Year, with Education Dean Zoe Locklear.

“We need to see these children in all their complexities,” Dr. Cortina said. “It’s a big challenge, but, as teachers, it is our role to bring about learning in our classrooms.”

Alfaro is an ESL teacher in Catawba County, a county where the largest group of ESL students is Hmong children from Laos.

“I found myself in the same boat as most North Carolina teachers,” she said. “So, I had to learn about their language and culture.”

Alfaro educated herself about Hmong culture, and she has made her school a welcome place using posters, flags and special events for the Hmong and other minority groups in her school.

The critical issue for educators is “adaptation vs. adoption” of the majority culture and language. The goal is for migrant children to become bilingual and bicultural, the ESL teacher said.

“It is not too difficult to make people feel welcome. At my school, we don’t do this on one day, but every day,” she said. “Everybody feels respected.”

To learn more about UNCP’s ESL and Spanish Language programs, call Jose Gomez at 910.521.6432 or email jose.gomez@uncp.edu.

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