As the Hispanic population in North Pinellas grows, some of those on the leading edge of this demographic change are ill equipped to deal with its challenges. They are children enrolled in local schools.
Often born in this country to immigrant parents who have not assimilated, they have a foot in both cultures and sometimes end up feeling that they belong in neither world.
They hear one language spoken at home and a different one spoken at school. They are immersed in certain cultural activities and mores at home, but when away from home are expected to participate in entirely different activities and mores that are sometimes at odds with their native culture. If their parents don't speak English or haven't assimilated well, they can't help their children bridge the cultural divide. If school staffs and teachers don't speak Spanish and are unfamiliar with cultural differences, they can't advise the students on how to make a successful transition.
It is no wonder that local Hispanic students sent out a plea for help.
Three brave Largo Middle School seventh-graders composed a letter to Clearwater police Officer Maria Rodriguez, a liaison with the Hispanic community, and said they felt unwanted at their school. They were the targets of ethnic slurs, especially from African-American students, they wrote.
Their plea brought help that has made a difference.
Officials at two North Pinellas middle schools, working with the YWCA Hispanic Outreach Center, created support groups for their growing populations of Hispanic students. At Largo Middle and at Kennedy Middle School in Clearwater, the youths get together regularly to socialize, talk with understanding adults about their problems, and practice social skills and English. The support groups have provided a place of refuge and help in the students' challenging lives.
But even more important than the youth support groups, perhaps, is the journey that has begun for teachers, administrators, guidance counselors and social workers in the two schools.
The journey that started with the letter has included visits to Hispanic students' homes, where school representatives got an eye-opening look at the difficulties students were confronting. In some cases, students' parents are seldom at home because they work two or three jobs to survive. Multiple families may live in the same house. Students must miss school to help their family members at work or translate for them at doctor's appointments or in government offices.
For those students whose parents are here illegally, there is the constant fear of being deported.
And there is little relief from the fear at school, which should be a safe place for all students. In some North Pinellas schools — not just Largo and Kennedy middle schools — hostility between competing minority groups is acted out in threats and fights. And the anti-immigrant sentiment expressed by some white Americans toward Hispanics is mirrored in the schools.
"I kind of knew I had a problem, but I did not know how deep a problem it was," Largo Middle School principal Fred Ulrich told a St. Petersburg Times reporter for a recent story.
The Hispanic Youth Support Group has been operating at Ulrich's school for most of this school year and has helped students feel more confident. The home visits have helped school workers understand how and where to help. Ulrich made the needs and concerns of the Hispanic students the focal point of staff cultural diversity training this year.
Ideally, the programs working so well at Largo and Kennedy middle schools would be picked up by other Pinellas schools where Hispanic students feel lost or threatened, but budget shortfalls could limit that opportunity. Every effort should be made to find a way so that Hispanic students and their teachers can together foster a safe and nurturing environment for learning.