Haisell Franco immigrated from El Salvador to the U.S. five years ago.

A senior at Albemarle High School, Franco said although she’s had supportive teachers, she recalled being asked not to speak Spanish in her class because “it’s not professional.”

“They’re not respecting our language and our culture,” said 18-year-old Franco. “I feel like that’s kind of discrimination. … Let us speak our language. And let us be who we are.”

The Latino student population in Albemarle County Public Schools has grown from 601 students in 2005 to 1,844 in 2018, and these students are voicing the changes they would like to see in the school system.

At AHS, Latino students make up 14.6 % of the student population. On a recent afternoon, a group of AHS students advocated for the administration including Spanish in a more academic setting, having more school staff participate in events tailored to Latino students and creating opportunities that teach American children the history of immigration.

Franco said that pupils at AHS who speak English as their first language sometimes assume she and her friends are talking about them. Franco agreed there are times it makes sense to speak English, because the goal is to learn English, but there are other times where foreigners should be allowed to express themselves in their native language.

“We don’t say anything because we’re scared. We’re from outside. We’re not Americans, and that’s why we don’t speak,” Franco said.

There are others like Franco.

Josue Sarmiento, a Honduran immigrant, said he was confronted by minority American children for speaking Spanish in the cafeteria.

Giovanni Ferrer, an 11th-grader at AHS from Puerto Rico, said there’s not much the division can do because students are going to do whatever they want regardless of what the administration says.

But Sarmiento argued the division could host talks as well as develop classes that teach students about immigration. He added that would help student to not see immigrants as aliens as they’ve been “labeled in the government.”

“All discrimination is ignorance,” said 18-year-old Sarmiento, who also serves as a leader on the Latinx Club.

Phil Giaramita, county schools spokesman, said there’s not a division policy or practice that determines how a teacher responds to a student who speaks a language other than English. That’s a decision made by teachers on an individual basis and can be connected to any of many considerations.

Latino students have brought their concerns to Russell Carlock, a teacher and faculty sponsor of the school’s Latinx Club. They said there are few places in school where they can use their language and is appreciated in an academic setting, Carlock said.

“The only place they can do that is in the Spanish World Language courses,” Carlock said. “Some of them don’t have room in their schedule to take those classes. They’re expected to come to school all day and produce only academic English [work].”

Immigration is an excellent example of how this approach can benefit all students by studying the voices and experiences of people whose perspectives have been absent in traditional history lessons. We should begin to see some of these curriculum improvements take effect in the school next school year.

—Phil Giaramita, Spokesman of Albemarle County Public Schools

The situation could be addressed by having more courses where they’re expected to learn in Spanish and speak it at an academic level, Carlock said.

“If it’s a history of Latin America, they can take in Spanish, and it can be open to anyone, so if there are native language-speakers who are learning Spanish as a second language who also take that course and then learn from them from being with them where they’re the expert,” Carlock said.

The division’s two-way emergent program at Paul H. Cale Elementary School, which has the highest Latino population in the county, 32.5 %, has been one way the administration has responded to the growth, Carlock said.

“[Students] learn half of the day in Spanish and half of the day in English,” Carlock said.

Research shows, for families whose native language is Spanish, that it is the best program for supporting academic development, Carlock said.  The drawback is the program exists only at Cale, although there’s a demand for it.

“We have Latinx students in other parts of the county who have access to a dual language program — and it does not address the needs of the middle-school and high-school level,” he stressed.

In light of the growth, the division also could build on its culturally responsive teaching as well as have a curriculum that embraces many perspectives and is representative of the diversity of the student population, Carlock argued.

“So that students are able to see themselves reflected in the curriculum,” Carlock said, recommending the division to create spaces where the Latino culture and language is celebrated.

Making changes 

Giaramita said the division hopes to migrate the Cale’s Immersion Program to other elementary schools.  There are three schools that offer Spanish language instruction: Murray, Woodbrook and Crozet elementaries. Broadus Wood Elementary will offer Spanish next year.

“These programs would be the first step towards one day offering a dual language program,” Giaramita said. “These decisions are made by each school individually, based upon the resources, interest levels and support structures in place.”

Giaramita said the other consideration is the number of families needed to make a dual language viable because program participation is voluntary — 100 students would be reasonable.

“Principals need to take into consideration whether that level of interest exists at their school,” said Giaramita, adding two social studies classes are taught in Spanish at Walton and Burley to accommodate the Cale’s immersion program.

Albemarle High School. Credit: Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

What’s causing the growth

In the last wave of immigration in the 1900s, most immigrants went to the industrial parts of the country to work in factories in the Northeast and Midwest, Carlock said.

Some of that wave bypassed the South. And part of that was because the South was still in economic dire straits after the Civil War, he added.

“Even though there was some immigration, it did not have the same impact on the southern part of the U.S. that it did on the other parts of the country,” he said.

The southern economy has been better in the last 20 to 30 years. That’s attracting more immigrants, Carlock said, and the same demand for workers have resonated in Charlottesville, as well.

“Many of these workers come from Latin America, and their children identify as Latinx students,” Carlock said.

Ongoing demands

Latino students at AHS have continuingly asked for change. On May 1, Yatzil Romero Rodriguez, who migrated from Veracruz, Mexico, became the first English as a Second Language or Other Language student elected to the Student Council at AHS.

She was expected to be one of two Latinos on the 20-member council.

And over the summer, Latinx Club members produced a short movie called “Nosotros” featuring students sharing their reasons for migrating to the U.S. as well as the stereotypes they endure.

Giaramita said social studies teachers are working on a program evaluating the current history curriculum, which will result in a more inclusive of historical events. He said he welcomes the idea of having more staff participate in events for Latino students and should feel comfortable discussing the idea with their principal.

“Immigration is an excellent example of how this approach can benefit all students by studying the voices and experiences of people whose perspectives have been absent in traditional history lessons,” Giaramita said. “We should begin to see some of these curriculum improvements take effect in the school next school year.”


Billy Jean Louis joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its education reporter in April 2019 and is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean Louis speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.