Richmond Schools Face Bilingual Challenges

Oct 22, 2014

Jessica Osornio and community activist Dustin King

This month, two young women from India and Pakistan shared the Nobel Prize for promoting the rights of kids in their countries. 

Here in Virginia, another young woman is doing likewise – standing up to her high school principal and the school board. 

The dramatic growth in this country’s Hispanic population is not news – except, perhaps, in Richmond, where the public schools were apparently caught off guard.  Jesse Senechal is with a group called Richmond Teachers for Social Justice. 

“From 2003-2004 up until around 2010, it was a pretty steady but not dramatic increase in the population, and then from 2010 to 2013, it was doubling every year.”

There are now about 1,200 kids in Richmond schools whose first language is Spanish, but the system didn’t have people available to interpret for students or their parents.  Jessica Osornio came to Richmond from Mexico at the age of 9 and was placed in an English-speaking classroom.

“It felt horrible at first, because I was by myself with nobody to help me, and it was really stressful, because I didn’t understand the work.”

Two years later, she was fairly fluent in English, but students who go into the system later as English Language Learners may find it more difficult to adapt according to Dustin King, a community activist and founder of a group called Richmond Connexiones.

“If an ELL kid comes into the schools in middle school or high school, they are not going to graduate.  That is pretty much across the board, and I’m sure there’s a case or two that contradicts that, but for the most part that’s how it works.”

From parents he heard that Hispanic students were being searched by administrators, threatened with deportation, and kicked out of their classrooms for minor offenses.  Because their English was poor, he says, they were unable to defend themselves.

“Basically kids were being suspended from school and taken through the disciplinary process with no interpreter, and parents didn’t know about the process, didn’t know how to appeal and were just kind of in the dark.”

They took to holding protests outside Huguenot High School, where the largest number of Spanish speakers attend.  Jessica  Osornio was enrolled there and would graduate as the valedictorian.  Because she did so well, Osornio claims the principal used her to make his case – that the system was not responsible for students’ troubles.

“We were like at a meeting, and he put his people on one side and the ones that were making complaints on the other side, and he said, ‘This is my valedictorian – you know, showing that there is this one Hispanic that is doing what she’s supposed to do , having straight A’s and everything.  He didn’t even think that I was on the other side.  You know the next day I was at the protest with my big sign:  Intepretation Now!”

In response to a complaint filed with the U.S. Justice Department, the district promised to improve access to schools for Spanish speaking students and parents.  The system must submit a written plan to Washington early next year, and school board member Kim Gray says changes are underway.

“We have interpretation and translation services in our central office, many of our forms have been translated, and we are enhancing our curriculum to include native language course work.”  

She admits the system failed some kids miserably, but there’s one big problem in addressing complaints from the Hispanic community.

“We are definitely challenged in finding enough bi-lingual teachers and staff to meet the need.”

The school system has found money  to pay bilingual teachers more, and a relatively new superintendent has met with Spanish speaking parents, but Jessica Osornio is not giving up.  Now a college student hoping to attend law school, she still attends school board meetings to demand changes now.