2006-09-05 Holland Sentinel "Diversity dominates"

Diversity dominates
Number of minority students in schools continues to grow
The Holland Sentinel

The Zamudio family moved to Zeeland four years ago from Mexico and the family's children had a difficult start at first, said their father.

"It was difficult for all of them," said Francisco Zamudio. "The youngest one (Rocio) was in kindergarten and she would come home crying because she couldn't understand English."

None of the four children -- Marisa, Daniel, Joel and Rocio -- could speak English and all were placed in English as a second language classes.

The children also were only four of a growing, although still small, Hispanic population in Zeeland Public Schools.

If minority trends continue to rise in area school districts, hallways and classrooms this fall will be teeming with more diversified student populations than last year.

School districts are keeping up with the demands of the rising minority populations, especially with the fast-growing Hispanic population, which has seen increases in Holland, West Ottawa and Zeeland school districts.

Since the 1997 Zeeland public schools fall student count, the Hispanic population has seen a steady rise. In 1997 the Hispanic population was 5.7 percent of the total school population of 4,224. By the 2005 fall count, the Hispanic population had risen to 8.03 percent of the total population of 5,174.

"When we first got here four years ago, we were one of a few Hispanics in the school district," Francisco Zamudio said.

Zeeland Public Schools Roosevelt Elementary School Principal Judy Bierlein said the school district is aware of the growing Hispanic population and taking measures to accommodate the minority population by using bilingual staff members to assist parents who speak no English.

"We do what it takes to help parents when they come to parent/teacher conferences," she said.

Bierlein said families settle in within the Zeeland school district after bringing family members from Mexico, usually taking years to achieve the goal of settling in the district.

Similarly, West Ottawa and Holland school districts are seeing large growth in the Hispanic population and are adding bilingual staff at each building to help students with limited English and after-school programs.

In the Holland school district's 1995 fall student count, Hispanics comprised 28.1 percent of the district's 5,736 students. The 2004 student fall count showed an increase to 37 percent of 5,054 students.

West Ottawa, meanwhile, had similar jumps in its Hispanic population. The Hispanic student population jumped 15.4 percent from 1995 to 2005, when Hispanics made up 23 percent of the district's 8,090 students.

"This diversity is good," said West Ottawa core support teacher and migrant education coordinator Denise Archer. "It's good for the students to learn in a diversified school. They can learn about other cultures."

Gail Harrison, executive director for the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, gave some reasons why Hispanic numbers are up in area school districts.

Harrison said the area provides social support groups for Hispanic families, with bilingual church services and grocery stores that sell items that Hispanics are comfortable buying.

"Ottawa County started off as an agricultural county and that brought in migrant workers," Harrison said. "Then as people saw the benefits that education provided, they settled and became part of the community."

Rocio Zamudio, 10, is a fifth-grader at Roosevelt Elementary in Zeeland and will not be taking ESL classes anymore.

"I tried my best and then I learned how to speak English," she said. "The teachers really helped me learn it."