Huguenot High School valedictorian Jessica Osornio gave a moving speech to her fellow graduates about her experiences as an immigrant:
“Immigrant students don’t know if their parents will be taken away and the families separated. Every day we walk with fear as we try and just get through the day, never knowing what the future has prepared for us and our loved ones. The only thing we want is to be equal. In the past, that has maybe been too much to ask. But not today. We dream and hope for the best.”
The next day, she joined her fellow Latino students to protest what they say is discriminatory treatment.
“If they heard me that time,” she said of her graduation speech, “I’m pretty sure they can hear me another time.”
As her school’s valedictorian, she did not take her participation in the protest lightly.
“I had to really think it through,” Osornio, 18, said Monday. “And then I thought, ‘I’m not harming anyone. So why not?’ And I also feel like speaking up for people is really important.”
So as Huguenot students boarded school buses for home, a rally across the street called for a school system “in which every student feels safe and respected and is able to focus all of their attention on learning.”
Protesters handed out leaflets demanding “professional, competent and neutral” interpretive services so that every student and parent in Richmond Public Schools can communicate with any school official. They also called for the translation of grievance procedures and other policies, the training of school personnel in cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution, and a prohibition on references or threats about a student’s immigration status.
At Huguenot, about 14 percent of the enrollment is Latino. At Greene Elementary, another South Side school, Latinos will be 74 percent of the enrollment under an approved school rezoning plan.
The conflict demonstrates the challenges facing the school district to meet the needs of Latinos, who are now 9 percent of the city school enrollment and growing.
“Language access is not only about interpretation, but making spaces look welcoming,” said Carolina Velez, who organized the protest as an activist with the Wayside Center for Popular Education, based in Nelson County.
She said disciplinary actions are not being communicated to the parent, “So the kids get lost in the system. And of course, they start getting in more trouble because they don’t understand what’s going on.”
School Board member Kristen N. Larson, who observed last week’s rally, attended a meeting on the grievances at Huguenot on Monday.
“I think that the Latino population has been growing really fast, especially here on the South Side, and maybe [the school district] has not been able to keep up with that growth,” said Larson, whose 4th District includes Huguenot.
She came away from the meeting feeling that administrators are “open to making sure the policies are available in Spanish, are open to making sure we have more translators who are translating in the way that is unbiased, and just making sure that everybody is welcomed into the school and everybody feels safe in the environment.”
As for the protesters’ allegations that school personnel are making references to the immigration status of students, “That wasn’t something [Huguenot Principal Jafar Barakat] had been aware of before meeting with some parents last week, but the bottom line is that is not condoned,” said Richmond schools spokeswoman Felicia Cosby.
Barakat “has put a number of initiatives into place designed to promote inclusion,” and the school district will be working to shift resources to get more translators into the schools. It is also planning symposiums to improve communication with the Latino community, she said.
They should invite Osornio, who appears to possess the tools to be an effective bridge-builder between the communities.
Osornio was born in San Juan del Rio, in the central Mexican state of Querétaro. She moved to Richmond about a decade ago with her mom, Angelina, and her three siblings, who joined their father Rafael, who was working here as a landscaper. “He felt like we would have better futures if we would come here,” she said.
Velez, a psychologist who Osornio describes as “like a second mom,” said the valedictorian’s strength and parental support, combined with her innate smarts, helped her rise to the top of her class.
Osornio had motivation.
“Being an immigrant is always hard, because you have to push yourself to work harder than the rest of the people if you want to achieve something,” she said. “Other people, they look down on you just because you are a minority … I wanted to show people that we’re equally smart.”
Osornio went beyond that. Her story is a lesson for every underachieving student with an excuse.
She had one year of ESL classes in Chesterfield before her family moved into the city. At Redd Elementary, she was placed in regular classes, despite her lack of proficiency in the language. “I would get like Fs and Ds, but I would always try my best.”
Math, the universal language, would prove to be her salvation. “As long as I would see numbers and how they were doing it, it would just click in my head.”
At Lucille Brown Middle School, she was placed in honors classes. She put all her effort into learning English, and was fluent by the time she arrived at Huguenot. “I just kind of had to get the hang of it by myself. There was no other way.”
At the end of her freshman year, she saw that she was ranked third in her class, “And I was just like, ‘Wow!’ And then at that moment, it was like, ‘Maybe I should work toward being No. 1.’”
Now, armed with scholarships, she’s on her way to historically black Virginia Union University. She plans to study political science.
Osornio defied the odds, but other students are struggling in her wake. The school district’s fortunes hinge on its ability to meet the demands of its growing diversity. It’s a task too important to be lost in translation.