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The Georgia Project Brings Needed Educational Support to Georgia's Latino Schoolchildren
The composition of Georgia's population is changing rapidly as immigrants settle there in increasing numbers. In Dalton, located about 90 miles north of Atlanta, and known as the carpet capital of the world, a traditionally Appalachian workforce has been augmented by a Mexican immigrant workforce for several years. Similarly, in southern Georgia, as industrial jobs have become more available, seasonal migrant workers who had been performing agricultural work are settling down and planting roots. What this means is that Latino schoolchildren are enrolling in Georgia's public schools in record numbers. As of October 2006, Latino student enrollment in the Dalton school district rose to 65 percent. In nearby Whitfield, one-third of the enrollment is Latino. Finally, in some southern Georgia districts, upwards of 20 percent of the students are Latino. Undeniably, it is no longer business as usual in these school districts as they struggle to meet the needs of these young newcomers.
Against this backdrop of rapid demographic change, the local communities face two challenges: how to engage the school districts in seeking the bilingual resources they need to teach immigrant schoolchildren and how to assure a continued supply of well-qualified bilingual teachers or train English-speaking faculty to better serve immigrant children.
Erwin Mitchell founded the Georgia Project in 1996 to provide the resources to the Georgia school districts that were most lacking locally: bilingual and bicultural teachers. He was able to do so by developing a unique partnership with the University of Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico. This partnership is ideal because so many of the recent immigrants to Georgia are Mexican themselves. Under the program, referred to as the "Monterrey Accord," experienced Mexican teachers are recruited by the University of Monterrey. These teachers, with various degrees including bilingual, early childhood, and middle school education, come to the United States on H-1B visas to work for school districts in Georgia. Dr. Victor Zuniga, a migration expert at the University of Monterrey, serves as the head of the Georgia Project in Mexico. The Georgia Project handles the logistics associated with bringing the teachers to Georgia, and arranges housing and transportation. It also provides some quality control and supervision of the teachers in the schools and trains them upon their arrival in the United States. The teachers from Mexico typically stay for 2 to 3 years. A few stay on and seek permanent residence in the United States—with some becoming permanent members of the faculty of the districts in which they serve—but most return to Mexico.
Since 1997, 60 teachers have traveled from Monterrey, Mexico to Georgia to serve in this role. Currently, the Georgia Project is collaborating with a number of school districts including those in Murray, Colquitt, Decatur, and Whitfield counties, and in Calhoun City. In 2006, they placed two teachers in South Georgia and 12 in Whitfield County. These teachers not only serve the children's academic needs, but also as a "bridge," helping the mostly Mexican youth adapt to U.S. school culture. Many of these children's parents have only completed the 8th grade in Mexico, since school is only compulsory through the 8th grade. As a result, the Mexican teachers serve as role models for the children, helping to motivate them to pursue a higher level of educational achievement in the United States.
Through its Summer Institute in Monterrey, Mexico, the Georgia Project also trains American teachers to work more effectively with Spanish-speaking immigrant students. Each summer, American teachers from schools in northwest and southwest Georgia spend three weeks receiving specialized training to help them meet the academic, linguistic, and cultural needs of their Spanish-speaking students. The teachers travel to the University of Monterrey in Mexico where they study Spanish language, ESL methods, and the culture and history of Mexico. Since the program began in 1997, more than 116 teachers have participated in the Summer Institute. Teachers have been able to obtain credit for two of the three courses required in Georgia for the ESOL Endorsement by attending the Summer Institute (Culture and ESL Methods).
The Georgia Project also offers regular professional development opportunities to school districts. Since October, 2001, the Georgia Project has partnered with the Center for Applied Linguistics to offer professional development workshops to school districts across northwest Georgia. These sessions deal with issues of culture, second language acquisition, and ESL methodology. In 2004, the Georgia Project expanded this workshop series into southwest Georgia for teachers in Colquitt County and the surrounding districts. More than 300 teachers, administrators, counselors, and paraprofessionals have benefited from these workshops in the last four years.
The model at the core of the Georgia Project is simple and easy to replicate when there is a shortage of bilingual teachers available locally. In theory, this model should apply to any other nationality or ethnic group provided there is a strong, reputable, and reliable institutional partner with whom to collaborate and exchange teachers. The Georgia Project is already receiving attention from nearby states. Delegations from Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina—states facing similar demographic issues in their school systems due to an influx of Spanish speaking immigrants—have visited the Georgia Project to learn more about its programs.
Funding for the Georgia Project comes primarily from federal education appropriations. The program also benefits from local donations and occasional government grants. On an annual budget of approximately $500,000, the Georgia Project pays the legal fees involved in bringing teachers to the U.S. from Mexico; staff time to supervise the teachers once established in Georgia; the cost of training teachers in its Summer Institute and Professional Development programs; and foreign teachers' housing and transportation costs in Georgia. It also funds a scholarship program for bilingual high school students who want to become teachers.
Anecdotally, school districts are very pleased with the teachers they have hired through the Georgia Project. In some counties like Whitfield, student test scores are up and some of that success has been attributed to the Mexican teachers on staff. But many of the benefits are intangible, such as higher self esteem for the immigrant children. It will be important to develop more quantitative methods for evaluating programmatic success as the program expands and the model is replicated elsewhere.
- Increase the supply of well-trained bilingual and bicultural teachers through select institutional partnerships. The University of Monterrey is the ideal partner for Georgia's mostly Mexican immigrant population. The exchange of teachers works to all the parties' advantage.
- Work with local communities and school districts proactively. A proactive approach by organizations like the Georgia Project will help ensure that school administrators are taking measures in a timely fashion to meet the needs of local immigrant children.
- Support school districts by handling logistics. The Georgia Project facilitates the exchange of bilingual teachers by handling the legal and other logistics, and supports the arriving teachers in the United States to ensure a good fit and to provide quality control.
- Work to train American teachers to work effectively with immigrant children. While the exchange programs are a useful and efficient stop-gap measure, ideally American school districts should be able to train teachers to meet the needs of a growing immigrant student population. The Georgia Project facilitates this by sending American teachers to its Summer Institute in Mexico, and by partnering with the Center for Applied Linguistics for training in culture, second language acquisition, and ESL methodology.
For more information about the Georgia Project, please visit its website at http://www.georgiaproject.net, send an email to Executive Director Joanne Schick at jschick "at" mac.com.