LIFESTYLE

Illinois community works with educators to build stronger ties with growing Latino population

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 07:  Students wait for New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina while she visits J.H.S. 088 Peter Rouget school in Brooklyn to announe the new initiative called "Learning Partners Program" on April 7, 2014 in New York City. The program aims to bring schools together to better share and coordinate successful practices in the classroom.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 07: Students wait for New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina while she visits J.H.S. 088 Peter Rouget school in Brooklyn to announe the new initiative called "Learning Partners Program" on April 7, 2014 in New York City. The program aims to bring schools together to better share and coordinate successful practices in the classroom. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

Rene Valenciano has watched the number of Latino and Hispanic students grow at Joliet Public Schools District 86 from when he first started working there in 2011.

Valenciano, an English Language Learners coordinator, said the district has grown by 500 students in the past five years and, by his count, 480 of them needed bilingual services.

While not all children from Latino families speak Spanish, the demand for bilingual services has increased over the years, he said.

Joliet has a long history of Latino families, but their population has grown to become the dominant one in area school districts. Educators at elementary, middle and high schools work with families through bilingual service programs and connections with local social service agencies.

"I think as the community evolves, the district has also had to evolve and look more carefully at the needs of all kids," Valenciano said. "Sometimes educational systems tend to want to cover everybody with the same kind of programming. It's important for us to keep in mind programming has to be more appropriate for the students and their families."

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The population of Latino and Hispanic residents more than doubled in Joliet between 2000 and 2010 and makes up about 27 percent of the city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Statewide, Joliet has the sixth-largest population of Latinos, according to the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement.

Recent state data show the population increase is reflected in the schools, where Hispanic students make up about 50 percent of those enrolled.

In the past five years, the percentage of Hispanic students - an ethnicity category defined by the state that includes Latino - at District 86 jumped from 50 percent to 57 percent. The percentage of Hispanic students at Joliet Township High School District 204 grew from 39 percent to 45 percent.

Within the schools at each district, Sator Sanchez Elementary and Joliet Central have the highest number of Hispanic students.

Alberto Filipponi, District 204 curriculum director, said people have misconceptions that Latino and Hispanic families are immigrants, but many have been living in Joliet for decades, especially on the northeast side of the city.

The vast majority of the bilingual students at District 204 were born in the U.S., he said.

"The population has thrived here and they're here to stay," he said.

Besides bilingual education services, which are required by federal law, Joliet schools try to work with students and their families in other ways.

"In every building, we're trying to make sure there is at least one front office person who speaks Spanish," Valenciano said of District 86. "At this point, we're close."

In the past three years, the district has made sure monthly newsletters sent by each school are in Spanish and English as outlined in the district strategic plan. The district also has a Spanish and English interpreter at each board meeting.

Filipponi said it's been a District 204 strategic goal to communicate effectively with Hispanic families. While many teachers and support staff speak Spanish, the majority do not, he stated in an email.

"In the near future, we will be looking into implementing a bilingual liaison that can help facilitate communications between teachers and general (education) students whose parents do not speak English," he stated.

Lourdes Paramo, bilingual testing coordinator and teacher lead, works with students and parents at District 204 and is an advocate and leader in the Latino community, Filipponi said.

District 204 also offers a bilingual program that incorporates core graduation requirements in Spanish, such as algebra, biology and physics. Working with the community

The Spanish Community Center in Joliet meets with staff from both districts.

Elizabeth Nevarez, executive director of the center, said her agency focuses on bringing the districts up to date on their services so they can in turn help their families. She said the Spanish Community Center doesn't only work with Latino and Hispanic families.

"We're a good resource for families that need some type of assistance," she said.

She said school districts should embrace diversity and make sure their information is geared toward everyone in the language they understand.

"We need to be able to embrace every culture," she said.

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Joliet) Herald-News.

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