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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The best time to teach the value of diversity is when people are young, making schools the perfect place to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month from beginning to end. 

In Hickory Hill, a school is using the celebration as a springboard for honoring the contributions of the Latinx community and for building relationships.

The richness of Hispanic and Latino culture, along with customs and traditions are being celebrated all across the Mid-South, including at Belle Forest Community School. From music classes to daily trivia on the intercom to the parade of flags that kicked off the commemoration, they’re observing contributions from all of these countries. 

The official kick-off is September 15, the week a number of Latin American countries and Mexico celebrate their independence. 

“They get to show what they do in their country because not every country does the same thing,” said fifth-grader Christy Ellitt, who said her mom is from the Dominican Republic.

Students pre-k through 5th grade attend the Hickory Hill school. It has the largest number of Hispanic students of any Shelby County school, about 300. Still, they are the minority here.

“That was part of the reason we wanted to observe this, so that our students our parents our families feel that sense of inclusion,” Principal Robert Davis said. “Teachers notice some students who normally hold back because of a language barrier actually engage more during activities like these.”

Music teacher Vernon Fant said that’s important because, “You never know what they’re going through and they never know how much you care until you come to them with something they love.”

These fifth graders are proof that feeling included makes learning seem more fun.

Hispanic parents are also getting in on the school’s celebration. preparing and serving some of their favorite foods to the teachers and staff at Belle Forest.

“It’s very important for me and for my daughter and my son,” parent Maria Mengivar said.

Davis, the principal, says outreach to these parents happens all year long. He has a complement of English as a Second Language employees working at the school to help with language barriers and he holds monthly meetings with hispanic moms and dads.

He believes all the efforts to become more inclusive are actually translating into academic improvements. He says some of his English as a Second Language students are actually surpassing traditional students. 

The key he believes, may be the parents. Educators say more parental involvement in school activities usually means children get better grades,  behavior improves and miss fewer days.

“Every time when it’s like Sunday or Saturday and I don’t go to school, I’m like, I want to go to school, mom! Please, I want to go,” fifth grader Jayden Longoria said.

Mid-October wraps up Hispanic Heritage Month but here at Belle Forest the culture is embedded in activities throughout the year, meaning the celebration is far from over.

Davis says the school is a hub for other community services for Hispanic parents. The Mexican consulate uses the school to serve parents throughout the year needing help with passports and other documentation.