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'Hola,' bus drivers get course in Spanish

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

A group of six Clayton County bus drivers and their Spanish teacher got a little confused on Thursday at the El Rancherito Grill in Riverdale, when a waiter came to their table and asked, "Who ordered the chicken?"

The drivers were at the restaurant to practice their Spanish-speaking skills. They are part of a Spanish Class offered to the bus drivers by the school system's transportation department. The classes started in September, and the pupils have gotten so used to speaking Spanish, they got confused when the waiter used English.

Then, one of the drivers pointed out the Spanish word for chicken is "pollo."

The confusion immediately dissipated.

"Oh, that's me," said bus driver, Linda McCrary. "If he had said 'pollo,' I would have known who it was for. He should have said 'pollo' instead of 'chicken.'"

Twenty-five Clayton County bus drivers are taking a class this fall to improve communications with their Spanish speaking-parents and-students. The class ends on Dec. 11, so some of the students agreed to go to El Rancherito Grill to test their newfound Spanish-speaking skills in a public setting.

Hispanic students were 13 percent of Clayton County's 52,000-plus enrollment during the 2007-08 school year, according to Georgia Department of Education. Spanish also is one of four non-English languages the school system prints on all of its public documents, because it is the most common language, after English, spoken in Clayton County schools.

The drivers mainly learn how to hold a basic conversation in Spanish, and how to give specific instructions in the language.

Some of the phrases they are learning, include: "El no se porta bien" which is Spanish for "He does not behave well." And, "Silencio por favor" -- "Silence please."

But, "un poquito Espanol" is what a bus driver would say to let someone know he, or she, can only speak "a little Spanish."

Luz Diaz, the Spanish-speaking community liaison for the school system's office of Second Language Learning, teaches the class. She said the drivers attend classes two times a week, for two hours a day. She said the drivers have been a pleasure to teach.

"Any time you have students that come from another country, they [the drivers] are eager to learn the language and communicate with them," said Diaz. "Learning anything that makes you grow is going to be a valuable asset in terms of providing a service."

Cynthia Williams, a driver for Church Street Elementary, Riverdale Middle, and Riverdale High schools, added that "it allows us to work more closely with students and parents."

Trinia Mitchell, a bus driver for Kilpatrick Elementary, Jonesboro Middle and Mount Zion High schools, signed up for the class for professional development purposes, but it has already had an impact in how she deals with the Spanish-speaking students.

"It's helping me understand them better, and it helps them understand me," Mitchell said.

Melody Smith, a special needs driver for Suder Elementary School, said she does not have any Spanish-speaking students. In fact, all of the students she transports are deaf. But, she is taking it just in case she ever will need it, and it is coming in handy when she goes into neighborhoods to do "Soul Winning" for her church.

"Nobody else at my church can speak Spanish, so it comes in handy," Smith said. "I can now carry on small conversations with Spanish- speaking people."

Suzette Chambers, a shuttle driver who transports students from across the district to Babb Middle School, said she has a little trouble speaking Spanish, but the class has still helped her deal with her passengers. "I probably can't speak it very well, but I can understand what they are saying now," she said.

Brenda Williams, who helps the shuttle drivers deal with unruly students, said the main reason why the drivers are so eager to learn the language is because Diaz "has been excellent ... If you don't have a good teacher, you won't want to come back. But, if you have a good one, it will make you hang in there because you don't want to disappoint her when she is working so hard to teach you," Williams added.