Now that the only DJ's in Birmingham that spoke up against the invasion (Russ and Dee 101.1 FM) have been slienced, the Birmingham News is having a field day! They just had a big thorn taken out of their side when the station axed Russ and Dee. Now we have NO one here that will keep the public informed! Thanks a lot 101.1 You have lost a listener and I am not the only one! ... erspec=ASC

Court workers study Spanish

Judges, prosecutors, bailiffs strive to communicate with immigrants
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
News staff writer

The Jefferson County judge turned to a prosecutor, as the others in the courtroom listened, expectantly.

"Hola," said the judge. "Yo soy Juez Sheldon Watkins. Como esta?"

"Muy bien, gracias," responded the prosecutor, Leigh Gwathney.

Jefferson County's official court interpreter, Mavi Figueres, cut in. "With judges, you need to make the effort to add, `y usted?' to show respect," she said.

For the last five weeks, Figueres has held basic Spanish-language classes for court personnel, including judges, prosecutors, judicial assistants, bailiffs, court reporters and support staff.

It's an effort to make the courts more accessible for the metro population's fastest growing segment, immigrants from Central and South America.

Separate classes are held in the criminal courthouse and in the civil courthouse. One of the lessons last week focused on how to introduce yourself ( hola, yo soy ...), ask how the other person is doing (como esta) and to respond with "and you" (y usted).

Not only do the participants learn how to communicate on a rudimentary level with Spanish-speaking people, they also learn some of the tricks of the language. Latinos, for example, hold a judge (juez) in high esteem, Figueres explained. They would call Watkins "Senor Juez Watkins" - literally Sir Judge Watkins.

The class includes two of the judges who deal regularly with people who speak Spanish, Watkins and Laura Petro. Watkins is a District Court judge who handles most of the traffic cases in that court. Petro, who heads the county's Domestic Violence Court, deals with victims and defendants who speak Spanish.

"As a typical American, I took French in high school," said Petro, who came up with the idea for the classes with Circuit Judge Scott Vowell. "But what good does that do me here? We don't have any French defendants come our way. I told Mavi I wished I could speak Spanish and she said `I can teach you.'"

So many people responded to the initial email announcing the lunchtime classes, they had to be split into the criminal and civil divisions. Enough people have said they missed out on the original notice that Figueres is trying to arrange another set of classes.

"We're living in a world where Spanish is the second-most important language," said Figueres, a native of Costa Rica and trained Berlitz instructor. "The people in these classes acknowledge the importance of being able to communicate in a basic way with them."

Most of the dozen people in one of Figueres' classes last week were learning the language for the first time. For others - like Alan Baty, a deputy district attorney - it was a chance to recapture some of the Spanish he learned in school.

"I see a lot more people now who speak Spanish," he said. "I wanted to learn it again."

Figueres - a paralegal who has lived in the South for more than a decade, mostly in Alabama - speaks very little English in her classes.

She writes phrases and words - "hello," "how are you," court-related job titles, countries, capital cities, numbers - on a chalk board, then uses them to engage the students in conversation.

Figueres was hired by the county on a three-year contract, after a mistrial was declared in a capital murder case because another person botched the translation of testimony by a Spanish-speaking witness.

Her main duty is to be on call to be an interpreter in court, but she also views the job as an educational mission.

For example, she speaks Spanish to the officers who staff the main security checkpoint at the courthouse. She sometimes hangs out there, helping the officers communicate with Spanish speakers.

"They're very enthusiastic," she said of the security officers. "They can say `tickete' (traffic citation) now, send people to the proper judge and greet them in Spanish."

But her students must make some adjustments when speaking to natives of Mexico, the main Latino immigrant group in the metro area. For example, Mexicans pronounce the "y" in yo the way Alabamians say that letter in the word yo-yo. In Costa Rica, the "y" is pronounced the way the "j" in judge is spoken in English.

"They're all getting a Costa Rican accent," said Figueres, whose grandfather once was the president of Costa Rica. "I am so proud of that."

E-mail: ... xml&coll=2

Immigrants make school rolls larger than town

Tuesday, September 26, 2006
News staff writer

CROSSVILLE -- Few folks could have forecast it 10 years ago, but the enrollment at the public schools in the heart of this Sand Mountain town is now larger than the town's population of 1,440.

The word "crisol" - Spanish for melting pot - might explain it.

Nearly 1,700 students attend Crossville's elementary, junior high and high schools, about double the enrollment of 10 years ago, and the reason is the arrival of Hispanic students in the surrounding area.

A walk around and through the red-brick elementary school building, which once housed all Crossville grades and an all-white enrollment of about 800, illustrates the extent of the change.

Outside homerooms are students' names, often listed on brightly colored poster paper. There are the locally familiar Savage, Pointer, Barrett and Black, and other names that date from Crossville's origins as a farming community.

And there are names that illustrate the changing times, such as Calderon, Gutierrez and Hernandez.

On a human scale, the mingling of two cultures - one rooted in the Appalachian foothills; the other, south of the Rio Grande - has produced friendships, misunderstandings and more than a few interesting encounters.

For fourth-grader Whitney Mintz, the mingling meant taking on a teacher's role in second grade, using flash cards and word pronunciations to help a classmate improve her English. When Whitney takes the school bus home at the end of the day, she, her sister and two cousins - with her grandmother behind the steering wheel - are the only whites aboard.

For physical education teacher Danny Smith, the Crossville crisol has created a sense of helplessness and frustration over his inability to communicate with kindergarten student Brandon Garcia recently after the boy dislocated an elbow.

One day during kindergartner Lized Aragon's first few weeks in the crisol she spent about 15 minutes by herself in her homeroom while the rest of the students were outside. Knowing virtually no English, Lized did not understand that a fire drill was going on.

Crossville Elementary's enrollment this year is 895, and more than 46 percent of the students are Hispanic. The Hispanic students, most of them Mexican, some Guatemalan, two Honduran and one Puerto Rican, make up a majority of the kindergarten and first-grade classes; virtually all of the Hispanic students are taking additional English language instruction. Half of the Hispanic kindergartners arrived at school this year knowing no English. Most of the rest knew a few words, like cat or dog, that they could say in response to an image on a card.

Because of its growth, Crossville Elementary has more students than the adjoining junior high and high schools. It has nine kindergarten and first-grade classes, eight second- and third-grade classes, and six fourth-grade and fifth-grade classes. The numbers have doubled in the past 10 years.

Counseling in a closet:

Space is at such a premium in the elementary school that a counselor meets with students in a storage closet, and seven new classrooms are under construction. In the past five years, the number of buses serving all of the Crossville grade levels, but primarily the K-5 children, has gone from 11 to 17.

County school officials are even talking of building a larger lunchroom to replace the one in the elementary school that serves the K-12 students. The current lunchroom is in the only public school in DeKalb County that does not serve breakfast, and that's because the staff needs to efficiently feed the students during a lunchtime that begins at 10 a.m.

"We have a very unusual circumstance," said Martha Smith, a Crossville school product who's in her second year as the elementary school's principal.

Assistant Principal Ed Burke put it another way. "This is by far the biggest challenge for me and I think for the teachers, Mrs. Smith and everybody."

Second-grade teacher Jodi Maze, who has spent 24 years in the classroom, agreed. "Sometimes it's overwhelming, once you consider that those of us who have taught here a long time, we have our ways, and change is a little bit hard for us, I guess you'd say," she said.

Smith said the school has sought to keep a roughly equal number of Hispanics and non-Hispanics in the classes.

"You've got to keep it balanced as much as possible," Smith said. "The teachers like it that way, I like it that way. It's better for the kids because they've got to learn to get along with each other."

Familiar challenges:

The challenges of language, classroom balance and cultural understanding are familiar ones in parts of Alabama that have seen a dramatic jump in their Hispanic populations in recent years.

More than 8 percent of DeKalb County's 67,000 residents are Hispanic, about four times the statewide rate. During the 2005-06 academic year, Hispanics comprised 22 percent, or 1,947, of the northeast Alabama county's 8,600 public school students. Only Jefferson County, with 10 times DeKalb's overall population, had more.

Hispanics have not swelled the population of Crossville, but many live in hundreds of mobile homes in former pastures and row-crop fields in and around Kilpatrick, a former farming community a few miles west of town. More than half of Crossville Elementary's buses swing through Kilpatrick on school days.

Two of the students who ride those buses are Leslie Gomez and Eustasio Soriano, who are among 11 Hispanics in Tracey Walker's 23-student fourth-grade class. Their fathers, like many of the other Hispanic immigrants, work at one of the poultry plants in DeKalb County or neighboring Marshall County.

Sitting together in the hallway outside their classroom, Leslie and Eustasio, both 11, had positive things to say about their Crossville experiences.

"It's fun because you do work, you study ... and you get to play outside and you get to go on break," Leslie said.

"You get to make new friends," added Eustasio, "and you eat with your friends and sometimes you go outside and play."

Two of their classmates, Brady Williams and Daniel Mayes, have been at Crossville since kindergarten, and both have seen newcomers arrive and get acclimated.

"Most of us get along real good," Brady said. "Some of them just got here from Mexico that we don't know real good."

"When they first come here," said Daniel, "they're real quiet."

The same goes for many of their parents when they come to the school, until they hear someone speaking Spanish. At the main office, where a sign tells visitors they are in a "zona scolar," interpreter Rosa Chavez spends much of her day fielding questions by phone or in person from Spanish-speaking parents. The other day, Chavez' agenda included finding a student who could communicate with a Guatemalan kindergartner who had cut a classmate's finger with some scissors and hit another in the back.

"We think that she doesn't speak any Spanish," Chavez said. The Guatemalans, teachers say, tend to speak indigenous dialects at home.

Welcome, and not:

In the surrounding community, opinions are mixed about the growing Hispanic presence.

Crossville native Harold "Mac" McBryar, 62, spent most of his adult years in Indianapolis building heavy-duty transmissions for General Motors. He and his Indiana-born wife have been back in town for about six years, and the Hispanic presence is one of the biggest changes they have seen.

"They're not very well liked around here," McBryar said earlier this year. "I have nothing against them. It's just that they've just flooded the place."

Keith Pointer, owner of a construction company, said he had nothing against the Spanish-speaking immigrants.

"They're trying to better themselves," he said.

Pointer also said students and teachers at the school could do better if the state gave them more resources.

"The level of education is not going up like it ought to be going up," he said. "We don't have time to teach them like they ought to be on account of the number of ... kids we got in the room."

In her second-grade classroom, Suzanne Graves, who has taught at Crossville for 11 years, said she loses daily teaching time because of her Hispanic youngsters' need for extra English instruction.

"It gives me a feeling of being a little bit out of control of my students' learning," Graves said at the end of a recent school day. "When I first started teaching, I controlled everything in my classroom, pretty much. I had control of the pace."

What Graves and other teachers want is for their Hispanic students not only to learn English, but also to learn it well enough to grasp the content of their courses. While some of the students are struggling, enough of them last year did sufficiently well for the school to meet its Adequate Yearly Progress goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Jodi Maze said she has had enough experience with Hispanic children to have some admiration for what they have been able to do.

"They're doing pretty well to be jerked up and brought to a country they know nothing about," Maze said.