Area sees diverse youth: Pepperhill class focuses on speakers of other languages

Pepperhill Elementary School fourth-graders Angel Monroy (left) and Jerson Valencia take turns looking through a prism while learning about the color spectrum.

BRAD NETTLES

NORTH CHARLESTON -- Fourth-grade boys sitting around a kidney-shaped table in squat plastic chairs turn an assignment to draw prisms into an exercise of the imagination.

"Can we use lightning for the light?" Jerson Valencia wonders.

"I want to draw a dude getting hit by hail," Nicolas Zepeda said.

"Here's my prism and a human with a spear," Eric Avila shares.

They're typical fourth-grade boys, but don't be fooled; these 9-year-old boys and their other three classmates come from homes with families that speak little, if any, English. They've honed their second language skills here at Pepperhill Elementary with Andree Dugal-Jaynes, the school's English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher.

The boys also fit into a population trend by which a traditionally black and white Lowcountry is becoming a more racially diverse place.

Every day, Dugal-Jaynes collects students from each grade for 45 minutes at a time, leading them down the hallway to her classroom where every piece of furniture or equipment comes with an orange index card labeling it. "Computer." "SMART board." "Calendar."

Dugal-Jaynes began teaching these classes a decade ago at six schools across the Charleston County School District but, each year, she's taught more and more students at fewer and fewer schools as the number of non-English speaking children in the county grew. Now, she works exclusively at Pepperhill, spending time with a host of Hispanic children, a couple Filipinos and even a Turkish third-grader.

Her profession highlights change across the Lowcountry. Our youngest segment of the population also is our most diverse.

A Post and Courier analysis of census data found that while non-Hispanic whites account for more than two-thirds of the tri-county population among those ages 50 through 64, non-Hispanic whites account for just over half the population younger than 15. That fact translates to an even less homogenized population in the future and a growing need for people such as Dugal-Jaynes.

So, how many languages does she speak?

"One -- English," Dugal-Jaynes said. "I know enough Spanish to tell a parent, 'Your child is sick. You need to come to the school.' "

Yet here they are, these fourth-graders with years spent in Dugal-Jaynes' classroom, behaving the same as their native-speaking counterparts. The only girl in the class keeps to herself. One boy sports a Mohawk. They all give their teacher a hard time during her lesson about light.

Seriously, Ms. Dugal-Jaynes, what is indigo?

This year, the Charleston County School District's students are 45 percent white; 45 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic/Latino. The number of Hispanic students almost has doubled since the 2004-2005 school year.

In Berkeley County, the breakdown is 53 percent white, 32 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic/Latino. White students account for 59 percent of this year's student population in Dorchester District 2, while black students make up 31 percent and Hispanic/Latino students total 5 percent. In Dorchester District 4, the student population is 56 percent black, 37 percent white and 2 percent Hispanic. The number of Hispanic students has more than doubled over the past decade there.

Jarmalar Logan, assistant principal at Pepperhill Elementary, grew up on Johns Island. She remembers the few students she met at Frierson Elementary who took English for Speakers of Other Languages and the children of migrant workers who went to Haut Gap Middle School with her. When she started high school at Academic Magnet, she met Asian and Indian students for the first time.

Now, on the other side of learning, she recognizes something special in her most diverse students.

"They like to go to school. They want an education," Logan said. "It's obvious that they want it for themselves. At home they're told education is one of the most important things, and it's affected how they behave on a daily basis."

Pepperhill principal Tanya Underwood said the Spanish-speaking parents "come out the most," be it for a teacher appreciation night, a tree-planting service day or a budget meeting. Those parents have a special ally within the school.

Yvonne Guzman, Pepperhill's family liaison and a Puerto Rico native, began working as a teacher's assistant in North Carolina after her children left for college. When she moved to Charleston, she found a need for someone who could not only translate paperwork for parents but who could meet with them regularly and guide them.

Most recently, one Pepperhill mother who speaks little English made the brave step to join the school improvement council. She told school administrators that she stepped up because she knew she had Guzman there to help her along the way.

Staff writer David Slade contributed to this story. Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/allysonjbird.