A year ago, three Largo Middle School Hispanic seventh-graders wrote a letter to Clearwater police Officer Maria Rodriguez.
The girls told Rodriguez, who worked as a liaison to the Hispanic community, they were being called ethnic slurs, primarily by some African-American students.
"They tell us to go cross the border, to go back to Mexico," Angelica Caudillo, then 13, wrote on behalf of the other girls.
"We feel not wanted at Largo Middle School," wrote Caudillo, who was born in Southern California. "Hope you help us with this problem."
The letter helped.
It led to a unique effort between two schools and the YWCA Hispanic Outreach Center to incorporate the growing number of Hispanic students and their families into the schools.
Largo Middle and Kennedy Middle School in Clearwater both created Hispanic Youth Support Groups. Through the groups, students improve their social skills so they can communicate better with school staff and other classmates.
They also socialize with fellow Hispanic students, some of whom face similar language barriers and problems at home.
"It makes you feel good because you can talk to people in your language," said Cinthia Santos, 15, an eighth-grader whose family is originally from Honduras. "You don't have to feel left out."
As part of the program, Leo Cordero — an ex-sheriff's deputy, now the Hispanic Outreach Center's youth specialist — and school social worker Janet Corrado visit the students' parents.
The home visits have helped the schools' staff understand the circumstances some students face.
Many Hispanic families in Largo and Clearwater are immigrants. They cope with problems ranging from having to work multiple jobs to living in overcrowded conditions. Some also worry about being deported.
"My awareness has increased a lot," said Corrado, 51, who has worked for the Pinellas County School District for 17 years. "We have kids here who don't come to school because they are having to work where their parents work."
• • •
Among Pinellas County's middle schools, Largo and Kennedy have the highest percentage of Hispanic students — 18 and 25 percent, respectively. (Pinellas Park is also 18 percent Hispanic.)
Largo Middle principal Fred Ulrich said he noticed last year an increase in the number of Hispanic students.
So when the three girls wrote the letter, Ulrich saw it as an opportunity to address the school's changing demographics.
"If there's one student who said that, I would feel bad," Ulrich said, but "this group (was) speaking for more of their contemporaries.
"I kind of knew I had a problem, but I did not know how deep a problem it was," he added.
After the letter, Ulrich met with Rodriguez and Maria Nieves Edmonds of the Hispanic Outreach Center, where the girls attended a youth program.
In time they came up with the Hispanic Youth Support Groups. They have been operating at the two schools since October.
The support groups are part of a broader initiative by the YWCA and other government and non-profit agencies aimed at helping the area's immigrant Hispanic community assimilate.
As an outgrowth of the YWCA, the Hispanic Youth Support Group is one program that could be jeopardized if Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board pulls $2.7-million in funding from the YWCA next year.
This spring, the JWB said it is considering such a move because of past operating deficits and administrative instability at the YWCA. But JWB officials also have said that if the board doesn't fund the YWCA, they would try to maintain the programs, possibly by giving the contracts to someone else.
Whatever happens, this program should go on, said a Y administrator.
"It's something we want to grow under the best of circumstances," said Sandra Lyth, YWCA's director of Hispanic Services. "It's very much needed in the community."
• • •
As part of the middle school support groups, Cordero and Corrado have 45-minute sessions each week with 60 of the Hispanic students at both schools.
The students are divided by grade levels and gender. Not all were born in Latin America or struggle with English.
The curriculum revolves around teaching them social skills — such as conflict resolution — so they can advocate for themselves.
Cordero and Corrado encourage the students to speak English during the sessions.
But they allow the students to finish their thoughts in Spanish when the they can't find the words in English.
Trouble with speaking English is one reason why the students are isolated from their teachers and fellow students, Cordero and Corrado said. At home, some parents don't speak English, either, so their families are also isolated from the community.
Their families are often poor and the parents work from early in the morning to late at night.
Some parents are in the country illegally. Besides the threat of deportation, they are in constant fear of losing their jobs.
The children sometimes stay home from school to help their parents translate at places such as doctors' offices.
"It's a very unique thing they are going through," said Cordero, 56. "The kids bring it here to school. These teachers and counselors, it's an incredible job that they are facing."
Still, when he visits families, Cordero said, the parents ask to make sure their children get to practice English in the support groups.
One student is Monica Fernandez, 12, a sixth-grader whose family came from Mexico when she was 8. The petite girl with long dark hair missed school recently. She had to go to Orlando with her father who wanted her to interpret for him in court.
She speaks English well.
She smiled broadly telling a story about a white woman at a supermarket recently who complimented her and her two younger sisters on their English.
"This lady came up to us," Monica recounted. " 'I'm very proud of you. You are speaking English even though you are Hispanic.' My sisters, they were proud because we like to speak English."
• • •
Ulrich said his school has become more aware of the needs of the Hispanic students — he focused cultural diversity training for the staff this year on them.
He credits the Hispanic support groups in part for helping reduce tension between African-American and Hispanic students.
Among middle schools, Largo has had the smallest number of out-of-school suspensions
"I think it shows we are doing outreach to better understand the cultural issues, to be more inclusive" Ulrich said.
The support groups have revealed the need for more bilingual teachers and staff at the schools, Corrado said.
Meanwhile, the Hispanic students who wrote the letter say they feel more welcomed now.
Caudillo said her language arts teacher read her letter to the class "because she said she wanted to make a change."
"The kids were saying they felt bad for it," said Caudillo, now 14. "They said they weren't going to treat Mexicans different."
Jose Cardenas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4224.