NAACP battles Latino groups over push to open public schools for non-English speakers

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A plan that would dedicate two public high schools in suburban Washington to immigrants and students struggling with English is pitting black and Hispanic communities -– usually allies -- against one another.

The Prince George’s County, Md., chapter of the NAACP is strongly opposing the plan -- which would take effect next school year, and cover about 800 students having English language difficulties -- claiming it will pull resources from other students and unfairly redistribute them to Hispanic students. Some critics go so far as to compare the plan to segregation.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Bob Ross, president of the Prince George’s County branch of the NAACP, told

Ross believes the proposal to open two new schools violates the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled separate schools for black and white students violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“It risks turning Prince George’s County into a segregated school system,” Ross said, adding that he realizes the need for better education in the county but believes it should not come at the cost of existing students.

Latino advocacy group CASA de Maryland sees it differently. The group, which has pushed for the schools, argues that it’s not a violation of the Constitution because the schools are not mandatory and are being built to provide options to immigrants

“If we are saying all [English-language-learning] students must go to these schools, that’s one thing. But we are not,” Tehani Collazo, senior director of schools and community engagement at CASA, told

Collazo said Ross’ comments that the schools would take away opportunities from some students and reward others doesn’t add up.

“We see these students as Prince George’s County students,” she said. “They are eligible for an education. The charge that funds are being taken away is a false charge because they are all of our students. They deserve access – full access – to a quality education.”

Kevin Maxwell, CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools which are moving ahead with the school plans later this year, agrees.

“Like the many that already exist across the country, the International Schools are schools of choice,” he said in a written statement to “They are built on an innovative and proven model that will help support the needs of our most struggling group of learners – English Language Learners.”

He added that the schools focus “on providing opportunity for all of our students no matter their country of origin, race, creed or status.”

The schools are expected to open with 100 9th graders and make room for another 100 students each year until the schools hit their capacity of 400 students each. The CASA International School at Largo High will operate as a school within a school. The Langley Park school, about a 20-minute drive from Largo, will likely operate as a standalone.

The schools will be funded in part by a $3 million Carnegie Corporation grant. The rest will come from the state and local funding.

Despite the intense controversy, the facilities are not unprecedented. The schools themselves will be fashioned like other CASA-Internationals Community Schools currently operating in New York and California.

In New York, 64 percent of students at the CASA schools graduated in four years, compared with 45 percent of similar students with language barriers in other city schools, the organization said.

The move highlights tensions in Prince George’s County between the community’s black and Hispanic populations. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, blacks make up 65.1 percent of the county’s population while Hispanics make up 16.2 percent.

A recent study by CASA – used in their pitch for the two new high schools -- found that 82 percent of students living in the Langley Park school district are at risk of dropping out of high school. The Latino and immigrant advocacy group says there are “serious challenges” with education in the area and argues that opening these schools would help lower attrition rates.

Ross said his organization was initially notified after an angry parent of a public school student brought it to his attention. He also believes that if the schools are allowed to operate it will create an even bigger rift in the community between the two groups and blames CASA for fueling the tension.

“We don’t want to fight,” Ross said. “You’re causing a black-brown fight in the community and the fact is, we need programs to be inclusive for all our children.”

Despite the pushback, both schools are on schedule to open their doors in a few months. Ross says he’s not giving up.

“Everybody has dreams. You are living the American dream,” Ross said of the CASA organization. “What’s wrong with pushing to secure it for everyone?”

The next step for the NAACP is a March 26 meeting with Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III. Calls to Baker’s office for comment were not returned.

Ross also says the chapter will “go into community action mode” which he describes as organizing rallies and demonstrations.