Future of American South looks increasingly Hispanic

By Allen G. Breed


May 25, 2005

 GAINESVILLE, Ga. - The chicken plants loom over this northeastern Georgia town's Hispanic neighborhoods. When Maria Turcios' parents came to Gainesville from El Salvador more than a dozen years ago, they looked to those plants as their hope for a better life.

    But to 16-year-old Maria and others who followed that first generation of immigrants, a job of hanging birds 12 hours a day would be a sign of failure.

    Two years ago, Maria's family paid a "coyote" $8,000 to smuggle her to the United States in a stifling, dark truck compartment beneath boxes of bananas. Her family pushed her to learn English, and when she recently fell behind in her studies, her mother used the threat of a job on the chicken line to get her to buckle down.

     "I want to have a future," the shy girl with the wavy black hair and almond eyes says in Spanish. "But if my mother puts me to work, that future would disappear."

    Maria's future and the South's are intertwined.

    Eight of the top 10 counties with the most explosive growth in school-age Hispanic population from 1990 to 2003 were in the South. In Hall County, where Gainesville is the seat, that growth was 676 percent.

    Hispanics make up 51 percent of the Gainesville city schools' student population and 27 percent in the Hall County district.

    Federal law mandates that public schools educate immigrants -- documented or not. Studies have criticized the way Southern schools have dealt with the influx, citing inconsistent approaches that often don't give Hispanics enough support. The regional dropout rate among foreign-born Hispanics is 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

    A North Carolina think tank issued a "State of the South" report last year, saying too many low-income and minority youths attend "isolated, resource-poor schools" that leave this booming population ill-equipped for the future. The report warned that "a new apartheid is gripping Southern education, less visible but just as lethal as the old form."

    In Mexico, near the Texas border, signs beckon immigrants to Gainesville, "The Poultry Capital of the World," and many have heeded the call. They make up more than 90 percent of the area's meat-processing workers.

    Their influence is seen on the Atlanta Highway, where billboards proclaim such messages as "Un Banco que entiende tu idioma" ("A bank that understands your language").

    At Lyman Hall Elementary -- both the school and the county are named for Georgia's Revolutionary-era governor, a signer of the Declaration of Independence -- officials say 94 percent of the students are Hispanic.

    In a fifth-grade science lab, teacher Gayla Pierce is giving a test on Isaac Newton's laws of motion. She reads each question aloud, overenunciating to make sure her pupils understand.

    "These are your answers," she says, holding up a word list. "You may want to glance over them and make sure you remember."

    When Mrs. Pierce started at the school in 1988, she might have had two Spanish speakers in a class. Today, nearly all 17 are Hispanic.

    "We have a very small percentage that comprehend everything," she says.

    Ana Davila, 11, has to comprehend, because, as with many of her classmates, little help is waiting for her when she gets home.

    Ana was born in Gainesville, but her Mexican-born mother speaks little English and refuses to learn. In fifth grade, Ana already has gone about as far in school as her mother did in Mexico.

    "I consider myself lucky for going to school," she says.

    Despite an English-language immersion program for newcomers and the hiring of at least one Spanish-speaking teacher for each grade level, the school's 2004 state standardized test scores were 52 percent in English/language arts, 53 percent math. Lyman Hall achieved adequate yearly progress when the federal No Child Left Behind Act took effect, but last year, the school fell into the "needs improvement" category.