Santa Fe system struggles to educate hundreds of children with limited English skills

On Santa Fe’s south side, a whole new world has taken root in the past decade or so.

Grocery stores and restaurants that cater to Mexican immigrants have sprung up. Cars bearing license plates from the Mexican state of Chihuahua are no longer rare in the area’s increasingly congested traffic. And imported from another part of the world, Tibetan festivals are held at the Buddhist stupa on Airport Road.

In a very visible way, immigrants are a large part of the growth on the city’s south side almost 10,000 new people moved to the area bisected by Airport Road in the 1990s, according to U.S. Census figures, making it the fastest-growing part of the city.

In the Santa Fe Public Schools, which by federal law must serve all immigrants, the changes are being keenly felt.

“There’s been a big increase over the past three or four years” in the number of recent immigrants on campus, said district immigration and bilingual education director Rick Gutierrez.

In the 1997-98 school year, the district had 517 immigrant students who had been in the country three years or less, a category that earns the district extra federal money $59,000 that year. During the 2000-01 school year, Santa Fe Public Schools had 764 such students who generated $125,000 in emergency immigrant funds.

Beyond those students, there are the other immigrants who have been here longer than three years. They, too, have an impact on the schools.

The majority of the immigrant students are from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America. Many are here legally, others aren’t. And Gutierrez predicts the migration from south of the border will continue.

Educators say the immigrant wave has been enriching for the schools but also challenging.

“It’s really not a lot of money,” Gutierrez said of the emergency immigrant funds. “We are not able to attract enough bilingual teachers. We don’t have enough staff to address the needs of these kids.”

There are myriad other challenges: Educators say it takes four to seven years for a student to learn to read, write and speak English. Many students come here with few or no academic skills, even in Spanish. Some students are only here awhile, when their parents work at jobs in the area, then move on. And there’s a measure of resentment from some local residents.

Teacher shortage

Aaron, 11, remembers feeling shy and scared on his first day at Sweeney Elementary four years ago, knowing only how to say yes or no in English.

Now fluent in English, the Chihuahua native says he is comfortable at school, with friends and teachers who “love me.”

Getting to that point is tough for many. Language, in many ways, is the first and largest barrier to teaching immigrant children.

New Mexico has the largest percentage of students with limited English proficiency of any state in the nation, the state Department of Education says.

In the 1998-99 school year, almost half of the 1,102 teachers approved to teach those students were working on waivers, meaning they hadn’t met the criteria to specialize in the area, according to the state Department of Education.

Santa Fe is dealing with its share of that problem 14 percent of the 13,000 students in the district have limited English skills and district officials say there aren’t enough qualified teachers to teach them.

Less than four years ago, Santa Fe Public Schools began offering stipends extra money beyond the teacher salary to lure bilingual and English-as-a-second-language teachers. Still, Santa Fe offers only $1,000 per teacher while Albuquerque schools offer $3,000 and Santa Fe is a more expensive place to live.

The Santa Fe district also recruits teachers in Spain and is seeking ways to do the same in Mexico.

But the shortage persists.

Santa Fe teachers and principals have said their No. 1 need is training for regular classroom teachers to work with students with limited English skills.

Gutierrez said that until recently the district has struggled to obtain textbooks in the home languages of the immigrants.

Individual schools can seek federal grants, which Sweeney Elementary School one of the Santa Fe schools most affected by immigration has done to help it clear the bilingual teacher hurdle.

Even with the right books and teachers, children have to master their native language before taking on a second.

Across the district, low test scores on Spanish-language achievement tests indicate a low level of learning before students emigrate, said district research coordinator Ed Gilliland.

“Basically, they’re lacking skills, or education even maybe, in their home language,” he said.

In 1999-2000, the scores for the 415 students in grades three through nine who took standardized tests in Spanish were no higher than the 31st percentile 19 percentage points below the national average when compared to students around the country.

The district’s English-speaking students scored no poorer than the 46th percentile and as high as the mid-50s.

Gilliland believes most of the tested students were new to the United States or lived in Santa Fe intermittently, the children of migrant workers who travel with the planting seasons.

The problems for many, though, clearly begin before they arrive. One Sweeney fifth-grader didn’t know the alphabet in Spanish because she had to care for her grandmother rather than attend school when she was in Mexico.

“Part of what we do here is try to figure out who they are,” said Marta Townsend-Weiss, who teaches English as a second language at Sweeney.

“Some of these kids have had a great education and some have had almost none,” she said. “People don’t know what a lot of these kids have been through and the resiliency.”

Bilingualism the goal

Teachers say there may be no one right way to reaching those students and help them succeed.

Even within a single school, Cesar Chavez Elementary, teachers are trying different methods.

Paula Coutsouvanos and Jennifer Rawlings break second-graders into three groups by language ability. Stephanie Sena teaches her ESL third-graders all together.

Coutsouvanos emigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 13. She fluently speaks both English and Spanish.

“Being from Mexico City, you can get both languages if you have a maintenance program,” she said.

In other words, after a child becomes fluent in English, children must continue classes to maintain their Spanish fluency. Otherwise they trade one language for another.

Last year, Coutsouvanos put it to the test. When she started pushing English too soon, she found students confused the alphabets of English and Spanish and the letter sounds. Some eventually were at risk for being referred to special education.

“They come out neither nor. They shut down,” she said.

Teaching 90 percent of all subjects in Spanish, on the other hand, produced better results.

One girl in the class was able to transfer her Spanish literacy skills to English-language books the sounds and printed characters are largely the same. By the end of the year, she tested at a second-grade reading level in Spanish and a third-grade reading level in English.

“You only have to learn to read once,” Coutsouvanos said.

Sweeney fifth-grader Omar Ortiz moved to New Mexico from Chihuahua six years ago. An aspiring writer who revels in Harry Potter books at home, he reads above grade level in both Spanish and English.

“He’s one of our success stories,” newly retired Sweeney Principal Bill Beacham said.

The common goal at Cesar Chavez and Sweeney elementary schools is bilingualism.

“Our goal is to educate these kids in their home language while getting a big dose of ESL at the same time,” Beacham said. “A lot will go back to Mexico. We owe it to them to send them back at grade level in their home language.”

Community oriented

Sweeney Elementary, plastered with bilingual signs throughout, has taken steps to make the school an immigrant-friendly place.

It has the second-highest percentage of emergency immigrant students in the district. In all, Beacham said, Sweeney had 100 immigrants four years ago and now has 350 among its 677 students.

On hot-pink paper outside Sweeney’s front office a poster blares: “Repeal Anti-Immigrant Law!”

“A parent put it up,” Beacham explained, “but we leave it because we believe in it.”

“We’re a bilingual community and we value that,” Beacham said.

Beacham said the parents of immigrant children are more involved in the school than the parents of nonimmigrant children.

“It’s an option in America,” he said. “In most parts of Mexico it’s required.”

The school provides multilingual booklets on immigrant rights in schools and videos on how to promote literacy at home. Computer and ESL classes for adults are offered in the evenings.

Parents who are hesitant to fill out certain forms, such as those for free or reduced-price lunches, are assured the application has nothing to do with the Immigration and Naturalization Service feared as “la migra” by many immigrants.

Ezequiel Armenta, originally from the Mexican town of Agua Blanca in Michoacan state, had been working at an American company in Ciudad Juarez until less than a year ago. He decided to leave what he called the drug- and crime-ridden border city and move to Santa Fe with his four children and wife.

Here, his college degree in agricultural engineering isn’t recognized. So he works in landscaping for a local nursery.

In May, he lunched in Sweeney Elementary’s ESL portable classroom, where fifth-graders ran a restaurant serving Mexican fare for a day.

“I love the opportunities they offer for my children,” he said of Sweeney. “They play guitar here and play the flute here. They have a lot of opportunities to grow in a lot of ways,” Armenta said.

The Mexican schools had fewer resources, he said.

Other parents, though, say schools here are better in some ways and not as good in others.

Victoria Marquez, originally from Zacatecas state, has six children from 3 to 22, several of them Santa Fe students.

“It’s good. I like it,” she said through an interpreter. “In some respects, it’s better than education in Mexico, but in some respects it’s not.”

She said while U.S. schools provide more teaching materials and free busing, Mexican schools offer medical care and a greater emphasis on some scholastic subjects.

Language hasn’t been a barrier to her participation here, given that most of the Santa Fe schools her children attend provide Spanish-speaking staff members, she said.

Dreams for the future

Students, too, see the trade-offs on either side of the border.

To Aaron the 11-year-old from Chihuahua the best aspects of Santa Fe are the weather and swimming pools. His mother is a waitress, and his uncle is a construction worker.

When he grows up, he wants to be a Santa Fe firefighter.

But, “sometimes what I don’t like is gangsters,” Aaron said. “Kids that rob stores and they like to hurt people.”

Julio, a 10-year-old from Mexico, misses swimming in the rivers and going to parks on summer evenings, things he said police restrict in the U.S.

“Here, it’s more jobs and you can have a better life,” he said. “Over there, there’s no jobs but you can have more fun.”

Many Mexican children envision living out their dreams in America, where they say life whatever the drawbacks is easier.

Julio says he wants to mend hurt animals.

Jesus, who is 11, aspires to be a doctor.

And 11-year-old Victor simply wants to “go all the way to college.”

As their teacher, Tony Weiss himself an immigrant from Paraguay sees it, though many people suffer and even die in their treks across the border, the risk isn’t enough to deter those dreams.

“It’s not something we will stop, I believe,” said Weiss, the husband of Marta Townsend-Weiss, “no matter how many guards you put on the border.”

Journal staff writer Jennifer McKee contributed to this reported.

Life in the New World

More than 10 percent of Santa Fe County’s growth in the 1990s was accounted for by international immigrants, most from Mexico and Central America. Some complain the new arrivals drive down wages, drain services and alter the culture. Others say they merely add to the mix.

This is the second installment in a series of reports planned for the coming months exploring how immigration is changing Santa Fe and the lives of people who live here. Both today and Monday and again next weekend The Journal North will explore immigration’s impact on public education.

Immigration and the schools

*More than 90 percent of all Hispanics in New Mexico are native born, the highest rate among states with large Hispanic populations.

*In the 1990s, New Mexico had the 12th highest international migration rate in the U.S., but the lowest rate for states along the U.S.-Mexico border.

*A 2-year-old survey of Santa Fe Public Schools students with limited English skills found 1,904 who considered themselves Spanish-speakers, but also a number of others who identified themselves as native speakers of Russian, Korean, Japanese, French Creole and Portuguese. No more than eight spoke any of those languages. Ninety-two more listed “other” as their native tongue.

*In the 1997-98 school year, the Santa Fe school district had 517 noncitizen students who had been in the country three or fewer years. During the 2000-01 school year, that figure rose to 764.

*The district received $59,000 from the state in 1997-98 to help educate immigrant children who had been in the country three or fewer years. Last year it received $125,000.

*Currently, $760,000 of the $1.4 million in outside funding generated by Santa Fe’s bilingual students goes into the district’s operational budget and helps pay for the salaries and benefits of the district’s 141 bilingual teachers.

*The remainder about $639,000 of that funding goes to the bilingual education office. About 61 percent of that money, about $393,000, goes directly to the district’s schools.

*The next largest chunk roughly $172,000 of the bilingual budget goes toward stipends to lure teachers to Santa Fe schools or prod them to take college classes for a bilingual endorsement or reward regular teachers for working with bilingual students under a mentorship program.

Comments are closed.