CLEARWATER — While the county’s Hispanic population remains relatively small compared with the state overall, the community is growing fast, most noticeably in the school system, where two elementary schools have more than 50 percent Hispanic students, a report released Friday by the Juvenile Welfare Board found.
That may illustrate why Spanish language skills were identified as a priority for health center and school staff members by a group of 70 people who met Friday in Clearwater for a 2014 Hispanic-Latino Community Summit
In the 2010-11 school year, the Hispanic student population was about 9 percent; in the current school year, it jumped to 14.5 percent, the report found.
Many of their adult family members, though, struggle to learn English, go a doctor or attend their children’s school meetings. Some who did not enter the country lawfully can’t get a driver’s license and may find the public transit system hard to navigate.
These were some of the issues raised by the group that met at the Suncoast Hospice on Roosevelt Boulevard. They included teachers, law enforcement officers, members of government and nonprofit agencies.
The meeting came a day after immigration reform returned to the national spotlight with a plan released by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives that signaled openness to giving millions living in the United States a way to remain here legally.
“They’re largely stuck,” said Sandra Lyth, CEO of the Intercultural Advocacy Institute in Clearwater.
“To have a community where you have thousands of people who are not eligible for driver’s licenses and who speak a language that’s not English and they don’t feel like they’re welcome or belong here — but yet they work here; they’re providing important services here — we believe that is not good for the overall health of the community long-term.”
Many of the 22,530 Hispanic households in Pinellas include American citizens, or have children who were born here, but the data shows the population as a whole has barriers to feeling fully at home.
While 69 percent report they speak English “very well,” those who don’t often find that bilingual materials explaining basic services are hard to come by.
Their median family income is less than two-thirds of the county average, at just more than $38,000 a year, and 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. About one-third don’t have health insurance, compared with 17 percent countywide.
Families here are growing, though, said Maria Edmonds, chair of the Hispanic Leadership Council.
“The birth rate in the Hispanic population is high,” she said.
In one Clearwater Zip code, 20 percent of the population was identified as Hispanic, and the demographic shift is probably obvious at several schools, particularly in the northern part of the county.
Belleair and Skycrest elementary schools have more than 50 percent Hispanic students, while Eisenhower and Dunedin are each above 40 percent.
A portion of those children need several years of English instruction, but participants in Friday’s meeting said more staff members at schools and public agencies need to meet families halfway and to learn Spanish to communicate with parents.
Not surprisingly, language was identified as the single biggest barrier for access to services in a survey of 230 county service providers, followed by transportation and immigration status.
Pinellas County Commission Chair Karen Seel explained the Greenlight Pinellas plan and spoke about the importance of public transportation for the Hispanic population.
An immediate solution to the immigration question did not come out of the meeting.
Should a version of the Republicans’ immigration reform standards one day be put into law, legal status could be gained if people pass background checks, pay fines and back taxes, become proficient in English and American civics and prove they’re financially stable — without access to government benefits.
The Associated Press contributed to this report