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North Alabama school system

overcomes language obstacles

By BRIAN BLACKLEY

Managing Editor

In less than five years, Dr. Jim Pratt, superintendent of the Albertville School System, has seen enrollment of Spanish-speaking students rise from none to 500 of 3,400 total students.

The numbers are staggering, with students who speak English as a second language making up more than 15 percent of the total enrollment in Pratt’s school system.

And these numbers, Pratt said, present the school system with some major challenges in educating students who do not speak English as their primary language.

"We simply are not set up to teach Spanish-speaking students in their first language," Pratt said. "So we have implemented programs to teach these students as much English as we can so they can be put into mainstream educational programs with English-speaking students."

Pratt said breaking the language barrier by teaching the students to communicate effectively in English is the first priority of the school system when a student enters with little or no skill with the English language.

"This is how we discovered to best deal with the situation," Pratt said. "We had to find a way to educate these children within our resources and because we are geared to instruction in English, we have to get them the English skills they need as soon as possible."

Pratt said the increase was swift, first beginning its steadily upward trend four years ago.

"That was when I realized that we had to find a way to do what was necessary to teach Spanish-speaking students in our school system," Pratt said.

Economically, the poultry industry has a tremendous impact on Albertville and Marshall County, and growth in that field and available jobs within it have brought migrant workers into that area.

Once there, Pratt said, many members of the Spanish-speaking community assimilated quickly into society, with many finding jobs in manufacturing and other areas, as well as establishing businesses for themselves.

"It’s difficult to characterize a large group of people, but I would have to say that the Spanish-speaking people – primarily from Mexico – that have come here are good, hard-working people who are just looking for a better life," Pratt said. "They came here to work and that’s what they do."

Pratt said other communities in the state and elsewhere are facing similar situations – which could become major problems if not handled appropriately.

"In hindsight, there are things we could have done better," Pratt said.

One thing he recommends that school officials and community representatives do is communicate with Spanish-speaking people to try to make sure a good plan can be put together in the schools that will educate students who speak English as their second language.

"I would encourage a superintendent in a school looking at something like this that it’s very important to have somebody who has a good relationship with the Spanish-speaking community who can keep you informed," Pratt said. "Listen to that person and get a feel for the situation, determining if the workers plan to remain in the area permanently or if they plan to bring their families into the area. You have to know where things are headed to be able to plan for them."

Pratt said there have been changes in total enrollment of Spanish-speaking students, but the trend has been in one direction.

"It’s climbing rapidly," he said.