Classrooms of Babel

A record number of immigrant children pose new problems for schools

For picture day at New York’s PS 217, a neighborhood elementary school in Brooklyn, the notice to parents was translated into five languages. That was a nice gesture, but insufficient: more than 40 percent of the children are immigrants whose families speak any one of 26 languages, ranging from Armenian to Urdu.

At the Leroy D. Feinberg Elementary School in Miami, a science teacher starts a lesson by holding up an ice cube and asking “Is it hot?” The point here is vocabulary. Only after the students who come from homes where English is not spoken learn the very basics will they move on to the question of just what an ice cube might be.

The first grade at Magnolia Elementary School in Lanham, Md., is a study in cooperation. A Korean boy who has been in the United States for almost a year quizzes two mainland Chinese girls who arrived 10 days ago. Nearby, a Colombian named Julio is learning to read with the help of an American-born boy.

In small towns and big cities, children with names like Oswaldo, Suong, Boris or Ngam are swelling the rolls in U.S. public schools, sitting side by side with Dick and Jane. Immigration in the 1980s brought an estimated 9 million foreign-born people to the United States, slightly more than the great wave of 8.8 million immigrants that came between 1901 and 1910. As a consequence, at least 2 million children or 5 percent of the total kindergarten-through-12th-grade population have limited proficiency in English, according to a conservative estimate from the U.S. Department of Education. In seven states including Colorado, New Mexico, New York and Texas, 25 percent or more of the students are not native-English speakers. And all but a handful of states have at least 1,000 foreign-born youngsters. As a result, says Eugene Garcia, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, “there is no education topic of greater importance today.”

How to teach in a Tower of Babel? Since a 1974 Supreme Court decision, immigrant children have had the right to special help in public schools. But how much? And what kind? Many districts have responded by expanding the bilingual-education programs they’ve been using for the past two decades. In these classes, students are taught subjects like social studies, science and math in their native language on the theory that children must develop a firm foundation in their mother tongue before they can learn academic subjects in a new language. Proponents say that even with bilingual education it takes between four and seven years for a non-native to reach national norms on standardized tests of most subject material.

In most schools, it’s not economically feasible to hire bilingual teachers unless there are 20 or more students who speak the same language in the same grade. Even then, there aren’t many math, chemistry or biology teachers who can handle Vietnamese or Tagalog. In addition, critics like author and former Newton, Mass., teacher Rosalie Pedalino Porter argue that the typical bilingual programs for Spanish speakers used over the last two decades haven’t worked. The clearest indication of the failure, she charges, is the high dropout rate for Hispanic children — 35.8 percent compared with 14.9 percent for blacks and 12.7 percent for whites.

Bilingual classes aren’t an option in a classroom where a dozen languages are spoken. In schools such as Elsik High in Houston and New York’s PS 217, all immigrant children are mixed in ESL (English as a second language) classes on their grade level. ESL teachers give all instruction in English; their special training helps them work with kids who start out not knowing a single word. Some students remain in ESL classes for three or four years. Others move into regular classes but return to an ESL room for remedial periods.

Still other schools such as Houston’s Hearne Elementary School use the “total immersion” method. With 104 of Hearne’s 970 students speaking one of 23 languages, principal Judith Miller has encouraged all of her teachers to take ESL training so that immigrant youngsters can remain in classes with their native-English-speaking peers. “The limited-English children are able to interact with their peers better and learn social skills. They also seem much happier,” says Miller. Opponents see total immersion as a euphemism for “the good old days” when non-English-speaking students sank or swam in mainstream America without special treatment.

Nurturing atmosphere: Some schools have found that immigrant parents can be a great resource, either as volunteers or hired aides. When members of New York’s PS 217 Parents Association noticed that non-English-speaking families rarely made any connection with the school, they won a $ 10,000 grant and hired five mothers of immigrant students as outreach workers. One day each week, these women, who speak Urdu, Chinese, Russian, Haitian-Creole or Spanish, do everything from acting as interpreters at parent-teacher conferences to helping families find city services.

California is experimenting with “newcomer” schools that act as a one-year stopover for foreign-born children before they move on to a neighborhood school. These centers mix children of all ages in a given classroom and offer comprehensive services such as immunizations and other health care. Bellagio Road Newcomer School for grades four through eight is one of two such schools in Los Angeles. While most classrooms are Spanish bilingual, other students are taught in English. Teaching assistants who speak a variety of languages help out with translating. Principal Juliette Thompson says the aim is to provide a nurturing atmosphere for a year while the children, many of whom carry psychological scars from living in war-torn countries like El Salvador, learn some fundamentals of English. The newcomer schools seem to be working well, but they don’t reach many kids. “Unfortunately,” says Laurie Olsen, a project director for an advocacy group, California Tomorrow, “the real norm is far less optimistic than what you see happening in the newcomer schools.”

A method borrowed from Canada recognizes that the problem is not one-sided. Called “two-way immersion,” the program requires students to learn subject matter in both languages. Classes in the voluntary enrichment program encourage mixed groups of native speakers and English speakers to acquire new vocabulary. Public schools like PS 84 in Manhattan also use two-way immersion to attract upper-middle-class parents. Lawyer Holly Hartstone and her husband, a doctor, enrolled their 9-year-old son Adam in PS 84, where nine of the school’s 25 classes are involved in voluntary Spanish two-way immersion. When Adam grows up, his parents expect that he’ll live in a global community and need more than one language. These programs are catching on around the country. Two-way immersion in Japanese, which began three years ago in a Eugene, Ore., elementary school has spread to Portland, Anchorage and Detroit. And the French program at Sunset Elementary School in Coral Gables, Fla., recently received a grant from the French government.

Young Yankees: Being a stranger in a strange land is never easy. “All the English-speaking kids should learn a foreign language. Then they’d know how hard it is for us sometimes,” says 17-year-old Sufyan Kabba, a Maryland high-school junior, who left Sierra Leone last year. But here they are, part of the nation’s future, young Yankees who in the end must rely on the special strength of children: adaptability.

Many-Tongued Classes

More than 5 million children of immigrants are expected to enter U.S. public schools during the 1990s.

* About 3.5 million schoolchildren are from homes where English is not the first language.

* More than 150 languages are represented in schools nationwide.

* In seven states, 25 percent or more of students are language minorities.

* By current estimates, 73 percent of language-minority children are Hispanic.

CONNIE LESLIE with DANIEL GLICK in Washington, JEANNE GORDON in Los Angeles and bureau reports

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