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Town Schools Have Hispanic Majority

By Chad Roedemeier

November 7, 2000

DALTON, Ga. (AP) - The social fabric is changing in the Carpet Capital of the World.

Over the past decade or so, Hispanic immigrants, most of them from Mexico, have been streaming to Dalton for jobs in the city's carpet mills.

This fall, for the first time, Hispanics are a majority - 51.4 percent - in the schools. Dalton, a city of 23,000 people in the northwestern part of the state, is the first community in Georgia to reach that benchmark.

More Hispanics are coming every year, and city leaders are racing to keep up with the changes.

"It has been the greatest change of my lifetime,'' said Erwin Mitchell, a former congressman and lawyer who has lived here for seven decades. "All public signs now are dual-language. The ads for jobs give preference for those who are bilingual.''

Across northern Georgia, in fact, a construction boom along with abundant jobs at poultry processing plants and carpet mills have caused Hispanic immigration to surge.

But in Dalton, at least, there's another side to the transformation: As Hispanic students began enrolling in larger numbers, white families began pulling their children out.

There were 3,131 non-Hispanic white students in Dalton schools in the fall of 1989, or more than 80 percent of the total. This fall, there are only 1,893. Many say the white students are switching to private schools, some as far away as Chattanooga, Tenn., about 20 miles to the north.

Some parents complain their English-speaking children are being ignored as teachers pay more attention to children learning the language. Other people simply do not like the way their hometown has changed.

A convenience store in town, Black Hills Lottery and Games, has posted an 8-foot plywood sign decrying "uncontrolled immigration'' and declaring: "Congress sold us for cheap labor.''

"They're overcrowding our schools. It's hard enough for kids to learn to begin with,'' store owner Dorinda Bradley said. "They're taking over our businesses, taking our jobs.''

The immigrants have the clear support of Dalton's carpet industry, which produces more than 40 percent of the world's carpet. In a town where unemployment is less than 3 percent, carpet mills are desperate for reliable employees.

City leaders have taken extraordinary steps to welcome the newcomers. One carpet giant, Beaulieu of America, donated $1 million to help build a new Roman Catholic church. The city and county government also helped pay for an artificial-turf soccer complex used mostly by Hispanics.

The schools are also trying to accommodate the newcomers. There are 2,750 Hispanic students in the city's schools, compared with only 151 in 1989, and there are nearly 2,000 more in surrounding Whitfield County.

Laura Orr, an instructional specialist at Roan School, with 81 percent Hispanic enrollment this fall, said the teachers realized about five years ago that the old reading program was not working for Hispanic students.

So the school switched to a method that relies heavily on repetition and memorization. The school system also started recruiting bilingual teachers, who have been difficult to find. Only about one in 10 teachers at Roan is bilingual.

To solve the problem, Mitchell and his allies in city government and in the carpet industry created the Georgia Project, now in its fourth year. The project sends teachers to the University of Monterrey in Mexico for summer classes in language and culture. In return, the university sends young teachers to Dalton, 11 of whom arrived recently.

Francisco Palacios, publisher of La Voz, one of Dalton's three Spanish-language newspapers, said the project shows that business and community leaders have a real concern for educating the children of immigrants.

"I've been here for six years, and I have seen changes for the better,'' said Palacios, who grew up in Mexico. "The perception for the Anglo community toward Hispanics is changing for the good.''

A recent study of the Georgia Project by the Center for Applied Linguistics also found good things to say about Dalton's efforts to become a bilingual community. But it warned:

"Latinos are not well integrated with the rest of the Dalton community. While the economy is strong, the ethnic relations in Dalton are calm, but that could change in times of an economic downturn.''