SPRINGDALE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The Northwest Arkansas Council’s 2022 Diversity Report shows the region’s Hispanic and Latino populations are making the highest gains, causing community leaders to re-think how to foster the area’s next generation of workers.
Margot Lemaster, the Executive Director for the NWA Council, says change starts by taking a look at the area’s youth. She says school districts look completely different than they did a few decades ago.
For example, the diversity report shows Hispanics and Latinos accounting for 33% of students in Siloam Springs and 48% of students in Rogers and Springdale.
KNWA/FOX24 talked with three Springdale High School students who’re looking forward to careers in criminology, law and music. Springdale Public Schools says it’s ramping up its efforts to make sure students like them are prepared.
These efforts include making sure language isn’t a barrier for students. Wendy Duran Orellana, a senior at Springdale High School says Kindergarten was her hardest year because, at the time, she only spoke Spanish.
“I would just cry because I would just feel really out of place and out of touch with everybody else who knew this language that I was just so clueless to,” said Orellana.
Since the process of learning a new language can be tough, Springdale Public Schools says it’s expanding its English as a Second Language program, or ESL.
“In response to that growth, our programs have grown and our support systems have grown for all of our students,” said Carrie Bradow, the Director of ESL Programming and Services for the Springdale Public Schools.
Bradow said the ESL instructors want students to feel confident using English while embracing their heritage as well. She adds that ESL is designed to help Spanish-speaking family members feel comfortable in Springdale, and assists with students’ plans for the future.
“We want to create opportunities for our students, and as they set whatever goals that may be college, career, or beyond, we want to make sure that they have whatever skills are necessary to be successful in their goals,” said Bradow.
Bradow said the district’s ESL program is currently helping more than 7,500 students improve their English skills.
The district also offers a program where students can earn their Arkansas Seal of Biliteracy. In order to earn the seal, students take Spanish classes to broaden their vocabulary with more formal words they can use in professional settings.
“At home, our Spanish is more loose. At school, it’s professional and it’s setting us up for like the real world,” said Orellana, who has also earned the seal.
The Arkansas Seal of Biliteracy is recognized in 48 states. Orellana thinks it’ll give her a leg up over others when looking for jobs because she thinks it’s important for all businesses to employ someone who speaks multiple languages.
“I know that you get more job opportunities being bilingual. So having your Spanish really good is a plus,” said Jennifer Reza, another senior at Springdale High School with the Arkansas Seal of Biliteracy.
Lemaster hopes that local businesses will follow suit with the school districts and continue to add more inclusive programming.
“The more that we are intentional about creating places and spaces that are equitable and inclusive, the more that we’re going to see that everyone, no matter their background, is experiencing the same wonderful quality of life,” said Lemaster.
Lemaster says it’s exciting to see how many organizations have created programming to support our Hispanic and Latino neighbors, but she says there’s still work to be done.