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.
Latino Population Growth
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 to 1,178 students, representing 27 percent of the system’s total population; some individual school enrollments were more than 60 percent Latino. By 2001-2 Latino children attending Dalton’s public schools numbered 2,987 and represented 55 percent of all students.
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.
A Solution Is Born
In order to help meet the needs of students and teachers in the district, Mitchell formed a group to explore the possibilities of bilingual education in Dalton’s schools. Mitchell also contacted individuals in the Latino community to determine if they could assist in finding Spanish-speaking teachers. After those efforts failed, Mitchell approached Bob Shaw, of 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.
Dalton school officials immediately observed positive changes in both the academic progress and behavior of the Latino children, especially those with weak English skills. Communication between teachers and parents also improved with the help of the Monterrey instructors, many of whom took the time to work personally with parents.
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.
Peak and Decline
After its initial successes, the Georgia Project continued to expand and develop programs for the Latino children of northwest Georgia. In 2001 the Georgia Project and the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Applied Linguistics began sponsoring numerous professional development workshops for teachers and staff. Between 2001 and 2007 the Georgia Project provided dozens of full-tuition college scholarships to area Latino students. Funding for the nonprofit was drastically cut after 2007, leading to a full reduction in paid staff. Despite its organizational hiatus, the Georgia Project continues to serve as a successful model of binational and multicultural cooperation, inspiring educators and community leaders throughout the United States.
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.