...And a New Melting Pot in the Schools

AS classes change at George Washington High School in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, the halls erupt with the boisterous chatter that is the familier background sound of all schools. Individual words or sentences are not distinguishable by themselves but are cemented into a mosaic of sound. But there is something a little different in the lilt and rhythm of those noises. The pieces of the mosaic are not English, but Spanish.

Spanish is the native language of 70 percent of the school’s 3,000 students. According to the principal, Samuel Kostman, 90 percent or nearly 2,000 of these are from the Dominican Republic.

George Washington High, which for the first half of this century had a dominantly Jewish enrollment and later was mostly black and Puerto Rican, illustrates the extreme of a situation that has existed in New York City, and its school system, since the great waves of immigration began in the 19th Century. In the last few decades the major foreign ethnic and cultural group to settle in the New York metropolitan area has been Hispanic, though Oriental and Haitian migration have recently. The ways in which the system has changed to accommodate its Hispanic population — now 31 percent of the total, compared with less than 15 percent when the first ethnic census was taken 25 years ago — as well as other national groups, have also affected attitudes of educators and the quality of education.

The New York City schools’ Spanish-speaking enrollment, which in earlier years was mostly Puerto Rican, has more recently broadened to include Dominicans, Salvadorans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Hondurans and other Central and South American nationals. Between 1968 and 1977, the city’s Puerto Rican enrollment grew relatively slowly, from 21.5 percent of the total to 23.6 percent, or 244,844 students; while students of other Hispanic origins more than doubled, from 2.7 to 5.8 percent, for a total of 58,483. From 1978 to 1981, the last year for which figures are available, though Hispanic students were not broken down by nationality, their percentage grew from 29.5 to 31.1 percent. Because of a decline in other ethnic populations in the city, however, their numbers actually dropped from 294,792 in 1978 to 287,173 in 1981. Of these, the majority speak English as their first language.

According to Awilda Orta, director of bilingual programs for the city schools, the number of students whose first language is Spanish has remained stable over the last five years, at about 63,000. The change in the makeup of these Spanish speakers, however, is outpacing the city’s data-gathering and efforts to adapt bilingual programs. Other non-English-speaking students in the city schools who require bilingual programs include 6,886 Chinese, who speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, 3,924 Haitians, 1,536 Koreans, 1,433 Italians, 1,187 Vietnamese and 840 Greeks.

It was only in the last two years, Miss Orta said, that the school system began gathering data on the national origin of its Hispanic students, and that effort is due to be completed shortly after the start of school in the fall. That study, she said, will enable her office to give all community school districts in the city detailed information on their Spanish-speaking students.”We have a tendency to treat all in the same way because of the common language,” Miss Orta said, “but there are coltural differences that affect the way you teach certain concepts.”

On the other hand are such national groups as Dominicans and Salvadorans who have no family history of contacts with this country and are here basically because of social and political upheaval in their own countries. “Often these children don’t have a full complement of schooling and have experienced long interruptions in schooling,” Miss Orta said.

Another issue, according to Richard Duran, a researcher with the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., is the relationship between the cognitive and affective patterns, or the difference between the way Hispanics absorb academic and cultural information. Along with a colleague, Luis Laosa, Mr. Duran has done research suggesting that the style of interaction within a culture has a lot to do with thought patterns among its members. The way in which a mother talks to an infant in cultures with a strong connection to books and writing, for example, influences the way the child thinks and interacts in a school setting regardless of the level of his parents’ education, he said.

Mr. Duran and others said that many Hispanic cultures have unusually close cooperation and interdependence among family and community members. Jose Fraga, director of bilingual programs at George Washington High, added that this mode is necessary for survival in many agrarian Hispanic cultures and therefore has a prominent place in the value system of many Hispanics. This value system, however, often conflicts with values in the classroom, he said.

MR. KOSTMAN and Victor Herbert, principal of Samuel Gompers High School, a vocational school in the Bronx whose enrollment is 45 percent Hispanic, pointed to some Hispanic cultural issues to which they remain sensitive. The school calendar, for example, conflicts with the traditional January Epiphany celebration in Spanish-speaking countries. Consequently some Spanish-speaking students take Christmas break beginning in December but are not seen again until February. They also may leave school as early as late May, before the end of the semester, to spend summer in their native country.

Because of the importance of the family for many Hispanics, the two principals said they saw a lot of the “death-watch syndrome,” the phenomenon in which whole families return to their home country when a relative is near death. Where many Americans would not think of keeping their child out of school for such an extended period, it is the custom for Dominicans or Puerto Ricans, they said.

“It is not the devaluing of education that’s occurring here,” said Mr. Kostman, “but the clash of priorities. This bothers me and I get nice, respectful letters from parents telling me what is happening and I end up excusing the students.”

Among other issues cited by a number of educators and researchers was migration and mobility of Spanish-speaking families, which often means interruption of their children’s education. In an urban setting like New York’s, according to Mario Englada, director of ASPIRA, a national organization concerned with education of Hispanic people, a Puerto Rican child’s family might move from one deteriorating and crime-ridden community to another or move frequently from Puerto Rico to the mainland. “It makes it difficult to experience education in one place,” he said.

Miss Orta said that preliminary data suggest that schools with large Hispanic enrollments have turnover annually amounting to more than 80 percent, compared with a citywide average of just under 20 percent.

Another significant factor hampering their educational achievement, according to Mr. Kostman of George Washington, is the inconsistent parental involvement in the schools. “There is a correlation, if not scientific, between parental involvement in and valuing of education and high achievement,” he said, adding:

“I can’t be judgmental because the parents are under pressures and burdens of poverty, illness and despair.It’s absurd to say that they don’t care. They do care, but often they can’t cope.”

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