A possible dream
Erwin Mitchell's crusade to help educate the influx of native Spanish-speaking children into Dalton, Georgia has turned an educational crisis into an opportunity.

B Y - L A U R A - W E X L E R
P H O T O G R A P H Y - B Y - K I M - B A N C R O F T

In a trailer on the grounds of Morris Street School in Dalton, eight children sit in a circle around instructor Blanca Trevino. "Sand, late, rain," Trevino says slowly, emphasizing the "a" in each. She raises her hand and then drops it, giving the children their cue. "Sand, late, rain," they repeat, awkward with this foreign language.

Two Spanish-language newspapers, one Spanish-language radio station, and a thriving Mexican-imports aisle at the local Wal-Mart—these are a few effects of Dalton's massive demographic shift.

Mitchell (top of page) cheers on Georgia Project teacher Blanca Trevino, as she helps a group of Hispanic children—only one of whom has been in the U.S. more than a year—to read in English.

Erwin Mitchell sits in a chair just outside the circle. He listens intently, nods, and smiles widely, as though something more exciting than "sand, late, rain" is happening here. And for Mitchell, it is. Three years ago, when he visited Dalton's public school classrooms, he saw a very different picture. "You'd walk in the door and see nothing but Latino faces and their harried Anglo teachers," says Mitchell (JD '48). "It was a depressing situation."

What Mitchell witnessed was a communication breakdown, the effect of a massive demographic change. Between 1989 and 1998, the Hispanic population in Dalton's public schools jumped from less than four percent to 41 percent (Anglo students now comprise 44.5 percent). In three of the independent system's eight schools, Hispanic students—of whom nearly all are native Spanish-speakers—now constitute a majority of the student population. At Dalton's Fort Hill School, for example, there was one Hispanic student in 1988. Today, there are 200.

"We did not know the Spanish language, the Spanish culture, the Spanish student," says Fort Hill principal David Perry. "We were at a standstill as to how to meet the students' needs."

But Mitchell's visit to the schools did not paralyze him. It put him into motion and, within days, he was doing what no one in Dalton had done: looking for a way to quickly teach English to the new and large population of native Spanish-speaking children without, at the same time, jeopardizing Anglo students' education.

Thanks to Mitchell's efforts, Blanca Trevino is here in this classroom, instead of in her native Mexico. And the eight children in her circle—only one of whom has lived in this country for more than a year—have a bilingual teacher to help them learn to read in English.

This is Mexico, Mexico in Georgia," said one of Trevino's fellow instructors when she arrived in Dalton.

She wasn't entirely exaggerating; in Dalton these days there are two Spanish-language newspapers, one Spanish-language radio station, crowded Spanish-language masses at three town churches, and a thriving Mexican imports aisle at the local Wal-Mart. There's Spanish on the billboards (especially on the town's east side), Spanish in local TV commercials, and, at a recent meeting of Dalton Junior High School parents, a Spanish-language translator was provided for non-English-speakers.

"We have a Mexican bakery, Mexican restaurants, Mexican-owned clothing stores," says Kathryn Sellers, director of public relations for the Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Institute and a long-time Dalton resident. "We have almost a total society that's Hispanic."

The explanation for all this in a town that, until recently, was nearly 90 percent white and 10 percent black—like any mill town with one foot in the Deep South and the other in Appalachia—leads directly to Dalton's lifeblood, the carpet industry. The Dalton area houses six of the largest carpet manufacturers in the world, produces more than 70 percent of the world's carpet, and lays rightful claim to the title "Carpet Capital of the World."

The carpet industry's creation story—beginning with the tufted bedspread a young Dalton woman created in 1900, and evolving into an industry that yields the town a per capita income among the highest in the state—is one Daltonians proudly tell. But it was in danger of ending abruptly about 10 years ago; fewer local people were willing to work in the carpet industry's entry-level jobs, and unless a viable workforce could be found, the carpet mills would have to relocate.

One person's shortage is another's opportunity. As though the word trabajo—job—was whispered along the invisible lifelines that tether this country to its southern neighbor, a few Mexican men showed up. They were promptly given jobs. Then more came—a few with legal residency, most without. They, too, found immediate work in the carpet industry.

Durkan Spinning Mill, on the outskirts of town, operates around the clock to produce nearly 100,000 pounds of nylon yarn each day, yarn that is quickly whisked off to another Durkan mill to be tufted into carpet. Of the mill's workforce of 280, 55 percent are Hispanic.

"I love my Mexicans," says Sonny Buchanan, mill manager. "They go out there and run their jobs. They're loyal. The white people are just the opposite—they bounce around. These Hispanics are helping us out."


Left: "They find a job as quick as they get here," says Saul Adame of Dalton's Latin American Community Alliance. Starting wages of $9.50 per hour in the carpet industry inspire many Hispanic workers to bring their families and stay. Currently, Hispanics are thought to comprise nearly half of Dalton's population of 25,000.

Right: In 1988, there was one Hispanic student at Fort Hill School. Today, there are 200. Before the Georgia Project, the school was at a "standstill." Says Principal David Perry: "We did not know the Spanish language, the Spanish culture, the Spanish student."

The first wave of Hispanic immigrants to Dalton consisted largely of male workers. Soon the carpet mills' starting wage of $9.50 per hour convinced many to bring their families and stay. (That time lag accounts for why the real surge in the Hispanic population in the schools didn't occur until about 1994.) Though there won't be accurate statistics on the Hispanic population in Dalton—or the percentage of carpet industry workers who are Hispanic—until the 2000 census, it's estimated that Hispanics now comprise nearly half of Dalton's population of 25,000. And their numbers are growing every day.

As Saul Adame of Dalton's Latin American Community Alliance says, "There's still more jobs. They find a job as quick as they get here. In the past, they were coming and going. But that's not true anymore."

Some in Dalton find that fact upsetting. In 1997, the local paper printed letter after letter decrying a local radio station's switch to a Spanish-language format, an outcry that certainly symbolized more than anger over a format switch.

But plenty, like Buchanan, welcome the new work force as a godsend. "If it were not for the Hispanics filling jobs, this place would be a ghost town," says Judi Pontonio, a teacher at Dalton High School.

Still, until Erwin Mitchell started making a ruckus, even those grateful to the Hispanic workers had yet to acknowledge that with the benefits of the new labor force came the responsibility of educating their children.

"We didn't realize the true magnitude of the problem until we came to Dalton. In a classroom, there would be 20 Hispanic students and five Anglo students. That was amazing to us."—Georgia Project teacher Irma Diaz

Inflamed by what he saw on his visit to Dalton's eight public schools, Mitchell called the state board of education to ask for guidance. He looked for models in school systems that faced a similar language barrier. And he galvanized a group of Dalton educators to tackle the problem.

"We decided we needed instructors who were of the same ethnic origin as the bulk of the students, who were wise in the culture and bilingual," says Mitchell. "That's a very simple proposition. Now, how do we find them?"

When Mitchell alerted his friend Bob Shaw, CEO of Shaw Industries, the largest carpet manufacturer in the world, about the problem, Shaw recommended a business contact who had a connection at a Mexican university. Mitchell wrote a few letters, and in December 1996, he and four school system officials visited the Universidad de Monterrey.

"We told the folks at the Universidad de Monterrey that we needed help from our friends in Mexico," says Mitchell. "Once they saw we were asking for help, they were glad to get involved."

Universidad de Monterrey officials paid a reciprocal visit to Dalton (on a corporate jet lent by Shaw) in January 1997, and in March the two groups signed a contract creating the "Georgia Project," a program consisting of four components: placement of bilingual instructors from Monterrey into Dalton's schools; an intensive, month-long summer institute for Dalton teachers hosted by the Universidad de Monterrey; bilingual curriculum development; and the creation of an organization to promote leadership and involvement in Dalton's Hispanic community.

"It was hallelujah time," says Mitchell. And when folks asked him why a 74-year-old trial lawyer at the end of his career was fussing about education for Spanish-speaking children—especially when he can't speak a lick of the language himself—Mitchell answered quickly and quietly: "The truth of the matter is we're being very selfish. We're doing what we should to make sure all our children—Dalton's future doctors and bankers—are educated."


Left: Georgia Project teacher Nora Martinez guides native Spanish-speakers through their class's math lesson as Martha Allexsaht-Snider, a UGA professor of elementary education, observes. Says Martinez: "Sometimes the students think they don't understand, but if you explain it in Spanish, they get it."

Right: Capitalizing on the momentum of the Georgia Project, the Dalton school system has created several bilingual classes and instituted mandatory Spanish instruction starting in kindergarten. Says Mitchell: "We will be producing bilingual graduates before you can take your next breath."

Mitchell's own history provides a more complete answer. He was elected district attorney of Dalton in his twenties and Superior Court judge at the tender age of 31. When a vacancy arose in one of Georgia's congressional seats, he ran for office, and represented Georgia in Washington, D.C. from 1957-61, advocating recognition of Red China and serving on the space committee.

"In the Congress when Erwin was there, it was a very conservative South," says Ed Jenkins, University System of Georgia Regents chairman. "Erwin Mitchell was a moderate in the Congress, a very progressive leader. He was one of the reasons I wanted to run for Congress."

In 1961, Mitchell took a surprising step down the political ladder when he left the U.S. Congress to run for the Georgia Senate. "All the action was happening at the state level," says Mitchell. "They were seriously thinking of closing the Georgia public school system just to avoid black children going to school with whites. I started saying the opposite, because that's what I felt."

On taking a position many Georgia politicians deemed too risky at the time, Mitchell says, "My philosophy has been that if a position is correct, it's never too risky."

History bears him out. When the tide changed, Georgia's public schools slowly integrated. And no damage was done to Mitchell's career; his office in the Dalton law firm founded by his father and uncle in 1924 is filled with the mementos of a full civic life. A court reporter's sketch depicts Mitchell pleading the case of Bert Lance, the banking director under Jimmy Carter, who was indicted—and acquitted, thanks to Mitchell—for banking irregularities.

As a rule, Mitchell is frustratingly humble. But he is willing to say this of himself, "All my life they've talked about me being ahead of my time." Which is to say that Dalton's schools, left to their own devices, would eventually have created a program to accommodate the massive influx of Spanish-speaking children. With Mitchell's help, though, they did it more quickly.

"He didn't come up with a plan so much as he came up with the imperative to have a plan," says Ted Hamann, an educational anthropologist teaching in UGA's educational psychology department, who wrote his dissertation about the Georgia Project. "Erwin's got credibility with a lot of different people. He's both eminent and willing to speak his mind."

"Erwin Mitchell is a rainmaker," adds Dalton Public Schools Superintendent Billy Bice (Ph.D. '89). "He has connections, respect, visionary leadership. To attempt the Georgia Project without Erwin—we couldn't do it."

When you walk into Dalton's Fort Hill School these days, friendly bilingual signs in the front office read desk and silla, window and ventana, mailbox and caja postal.

In April 1997, the city of Dalton committed $350,000 per year for three years to the Georgia Project, to "buy this pipe dream," as Mitchell says. In July 1997, the Georgia Project received $500,000 over five years through the U.S. government's Title VII Systemwide Bilingual Education Program. Donations amounted to $84,000 in 1998 ($50,000 alone came from Dalton-based Aladdin Mills)—making the Georgia Project not only transnational, but both publicly and privately funded.

In the fall of 1997—just one year after Mitchell had committed to helping Dalton's schools—superintendent Bice fetched the Georgia Project's new bilingual instructors from the Atlanta airport in a school bus.

"We didn't realize the true magnitude of the problem until we came to Dalton," says Irma Diaz, a Monterrey instructor who, like all but one of the instructors, returned for the 1998-99 school year. "In a classroom there would be 20 Hispanic students and five Anglo students. That was amazing to us."

Known affectionately as "the Monterrey girls," the instructors' main duty is assisting students whose English is not proficient enough to understand their classroom teacher. The guiding pedagogical theory is that explaining concepts in Spanish, when necessary, insures that students' cognitive development doesn't halt just because their English skills are not yet developed. Sometimes the Georgia Project teachers pull aside a small group of students; sometimes they work one-on-one.

"Math is the same in English and Spanish," says Nora Martinez, a Monterrey instructor at Fort Hill School. "Sometimes the students think they don't understand. But if you explain it in Spanish, they get it."

"A new girl came on Monday and she didn't speak any English," says Cesilia Saldano, a Monterrey instructor also at Fort Hill. "Today I had to go over English pronunciation and words. We had to complete seven reading lessons before she can go back to the regular class."

A recent poll of Dalton's teachers provided largely positive feedback on the Georgia Project. "The Monterrey assistants have been invaluable in diagnosing and differentiating between language and learning disabilities," said one teacher. "They bring relief to Dalton educators who have been unsuccessful in the past several years in reaching Hispanic students."

Beside their classroom duties, the Monterrey instructors function as desperately-needed translators and liaisons between the public schools and Hispanic parents. And they act as surrogate mothers and familiar faces to children who often feel isolated and disoriented in their new country.

"The children feel real secure when they say, 'I have a headache' in Spanish, and we understand what they're saying," says Ximena Molina, a Monterrey instructor at Dalton's Roan Street School.


"Erwin Mitchell is a rainmaker," says Dalton Public Schools Superintendent Billy Bice (Ph.D. '89). "To attempt the Georgia Project without Erwin—we couldnŐt do it."

The city's decision to fund the Georgia Project caused a back-lash in Dalton that hasn't completely died out, and likely never will. Some people want the Hispanics to go home and take their children with them. Others worry that taxpayers' money is being used to help Hispanic children at the expense of Anglo children's education. And still others have quietly pulled their children out of public school, sending them 30 miles up the road to private schools in Chattanooga, Tenn.

But those in power in Dalton realize that as California's Proposition 227—which outlaws the use of Spanish in public schools—becomes the ruling chic, the Georgia Project helps to create a progressive image for Dalton. Articles in Time and the National Journal, and a semi-finalist award from Harvard University's 1998 "Innovations in American Government" program highlight that fact.

The Georgia Project's bilingual curriculum development and leadership initiative are still gathering force. And certainly the Monterrey instructors haven't solved all of the educational problems caused by Dalton's demographic shift—how could they? But, capitalizing on the momentum begun by the Georgia Project, Dalton's schools have begun implementing changes to help make a cultural opportunity out of a crisis.

When you walk into Fort Hill School these days, friendly bilingual signs in the front office read desk and silla; window and ventana; mailbox and caja postal. At Roan Street school, Amy Haynes' third grade class learns math today, matematicas tomorrow. At Morris Street School, a class consisting of 10 Hispanic children, two black children, and one white child happily colors paper scarecrows—none can stay in the lines.

Mitchell views the changes in Dalton's schools with more satisfaction than anything he's accomplished in his civic life.

"We will be producing bilingual graduates in the community before you can take your next breath," he says. "There's no money or politics in it. I'm not beholden to anyone. It's just one hell of a lot of fun seeing in a little community like this what kind of change can take place."

Back to Top . Up Front . Features . Alumni Profiles . Class Notes . Back to Current Issue