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The Georgia Project was established in 1997 in Dalton to address the dual issues of the city's growing Hispanic student population with little or nonexistent English proficiency and a lack of resources for educating those children. The pioneering program, which centers on a teacher exchange with Mexico, is a nonprofit organization recognized nationally as a leader in multicultural education.
In the 1990s Dalton experienced a rapid influx of Hispanic immigrants, most of whom worked in the area's carpet industry. In 1989-90 the Dalton public school system enrolled only 151 Latino students, a mere 4 percent of the school system's total population. By 1995-96 that number had increased
In 1996, while visiting his daughter, an elementary school teacher's assistant in Dalton, attorney and former U.S. congressman Erwin Mitchell was astounded by the large number of Latino students in the classrooms and observed many of them struggling to communicate effectively in English. Teachers were having an equally difficult time communicating with the students in Spanish, raising the question of whether the students could receive an adequate education in that environment.
In Shaw Industries, for help. Shaw suggested that Mitchell contact a business associate in Monterrey, Mexico. In late 1996 Mitchell and a group of public school officials flew to Monterrey to meet with Victor Zúñiga, the dean of education and humanities at the University of Monterrey, in order to discuss the possibility of a teacher exchange program between Monterrey and Dalton. In March 1997 a formal contract was signed between the two groups, and the Georgia Project was born.
At the heart of the Georgia Project is its teacher exchange program, which involved more than 200 instructors between 1997 and 2007. The very first teachers, fourteen in all, arrived from Monterrey in October 1997, well after the official start of the school year.
In June 1997, after receiving $350,000 from the city of Dalton, the Georgia Project sent twenty-four teachers from Dalton and Whitfield County schools to Monterrey, Mexico. This "Summer Institute," as it was called, was designed to help Dalton's teachers improve communication skills in Spanish as well as develop teaching strategies for the bilingual classroom. Teachers also learned about Mexican history and culture as well as the structure of Mexico's educational system.
Many participants were deeply moved by their experiences in Mexico, and nearly all said that the opportunity gave them a better understanding of their students. Most attendees also improved their language skills at the institute, making them more effective as bilingual teachers.
In February 2009 Erwin Mitchell donated the Georgia Project papers to the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia in Athens.
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