Stella M. Chávez

When families arrive from another country, school districts have to determine a student’s home language and explain to parents how the school system here works. We look at how one suburban school district is opening a center similar to those found in larger, urban districts.

The KERA radio story

Wesam Mitchell, a parent in the Grapevine-Colleyville school district, says she’s often asked to help out other parents and students who are new to the district.

Mitchell is a native of Egypt and speaks Arabic. The district’s been relying on her a lot more lately as the population of Arabic-speaking students has grown. She was pretty excited when she heard the district plans to open a language assessment center this summer.

“I was jumping from my chair. I was so excited because actually I’m helping other parents that don’t speak English,” Mitchell said. “And I found out they’re going to have a center for it, I was like ‘Wow, that’s a big change.’”

It’s a significant change for a district that has actually seen its total enrollment decline to more than 13,000 students. Its population of non-English students, however, has gone up. The district now has about 1,200 students who are classified as speaking limited English. The largest language group is Spanish, followed by Arabic, Urdu and Korean.

Six years ago, Bear Creek Elementary began an annual Around the World celebration to recognize the school’s diversity. Mitchell said six or so different languages were represented then. Today, there are about 20. She said settling in a new country isn’t easy.

“When they come to the school, they feel lost. They feel scared,” Mitchell said. “They don’t know how they gonna communicate with the kids. They be quiet.”

Mitchell tells the story of a young Indian girl in her son’s camp who never spoke.

“I didn’t understand why,” Mitchell said. “Then, they told me because she doesn’t speak English. At that time, I understand how that girl get lost and we’re trying to help them to don’t have this reaction.”

Texas requires school districts to conduct home language surveys. If a student speaks something other than English, the district figures out what that is and places the student in the right program. That could mean bilingual, dual language, or English-as-a-second language. But that’s not all. Judi Cox, who’s the district’s director of world languages, said the center will bring a lot of other services under roof.

“There are so many other things that have to happen – vaccines, residency checks – all of those other things that often the front office staff at a campus does not have the necessary resources, specifically time or the ability to communicate in a native language, to really fully educate the parent on what their options are,” Cox said.

That’s why a place like this will come in handy. The center will be housed in a portable building at Timberline Elementary school. It’ll have two full-time staff members and two teachers with experience in languages. Cox said that what happens when parents enroll their children can have lasting repercussions.

“When they have questions later, maybe they will call us instead of being content with not knowing because they would have a relationship somewhat with someone in my center. If they had a question about a homework assignment or about how school works.”

At home with her children, Malena Tavera says she remembers what it was like trying to enroll her kids in the district. She arrived here from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico 20 years ago.

“I think [the center] will help, because there are many people who don’t speak or understand English,” Tavera said. “They have to take someone with them to translate.”

Tavera said parents end up relying on friends, relatives or even their children.

“No one helped me,” Tavera said. “When I arrived here, I didn’t have anyone.”

Today, she’s speaks some English and better understands how the school system works. She often helps other parents and encourages them to get involved in their children’s education.

District officials say they’ll need parents like Tavera to spread the word once the language center opens. Among the its planned offerings – classes in parent education, getting a GED and citizenship.