Richmond school leaders are making their first concerted, districtwide effort to understand the needs of the city’s booming Hispanic population, and to find ways to meet those needs.
A month after a last-day-of-school protest at Huguenot High School, where some Hispanic students said they were mistreated and marginalized, a group of Richmond principals and leaders of non-profit and faith-based organizations met to begin putting together a multicultural task force.
In the coming weeks, they hope to add parents, students and civic leaders to the group as they prepare for an Aug. 22 symposium at Huguenot. The task force will also meet on a regular basis after the symposium, giving the school system a central means of addressing topics and issues that were handled on a school-by-school basis in the past.
“Our demographics are changing, and we’re committed to making sure our outreach and engagement keeps pace,” said Felicia Cosby, spokeswoman for the school system. “We really have to be fluid in how we meet the needs of everyone. We admit we have some gaps to fill. This is part of doing that.”
The Hispanic enrollment in Richmond’s public schools has increased by nearly 400 percent in the past decade, from 2.3 percent of all students in the 2003-04 school year to 8.8 percent last year.
At 12 of the city’s 40 traditional schools, the percentage is even higher. Greene Elementary was 57 percent Hispanic last year, and the number is expected to increase to 74 percent this year because of school boundary changes. At four other schools, the percentage was between 25 percent and 29 percent.
The number of non-native English speakers has also risen dramatically, from 220 in 1997 to about 1,400 today. The number of parents who don’t speak English is even higher, though there’s not an accurate count.
“I think (the task force) is needed in response to the Latino population growth,” said Kristen N. Larson of the 4 th District, which includes Huguenot. “As a board member, I want to be supportive and make sure our policies are in line with what’s needed.”
Huguenot Principal Jafar Barakat said the task force would allow principals and other school personnel a formal, regular means of sharing ideas.
“It will allow us to continually analyze what our practices are,” he said. “There are clearly some wonderful programs. It’s time to initiate some of those to scale in the division.”
At Huguenot, he flies flags from each nation represented in the student body. Last year, there were 22. He also has a welcome center for English-language learners.
“We’re looking for a larger space,” he said. “Everyone who comes in here needs to feel welcome.”
Trudy Watkins, the districtwide lead teacher for English as a Second Language, said Greene Elementary offered a program that could be used elsewhere: community centerlike space where parents can use computers and access information about schools and other services.
Cosby said the task force would be asked to:
• enhance the district’s culture of inclusiveness and fairness;
• promote diversity and acceptance;
• organize districtwide cultural exchanges that recognize and capitalize on the school system’s diversity;
• encourage students and staff to develop personal awareness and acceptance of cultural diversity in their schools and communities; and facilitate dialogue among all stakeholders.