Immigrant influx gives U.S. schools bilingual headache

Immigration grew massively in the past decade, and with it grew the population of students who lack the English language skills to succeed academically in American schools, say state reports to the federal government.

The number of limited-English-proficient students attending American schools rose 14.3 percent in one year, from 1.98 million to 2.26 million between 1990 and 1991, according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Education.

Maryland’s LEP student population rose nearly 18 percent during that period.

The growing burden of LEPs – about 1 in 20 of the 40 million elementary and secondary students in the country – raises concerns among teachers responsible for seeing that schools attain the six national education goals set by President Bush and the National Governors Association, said National Education Association spokesman Bill Martin.

“This is one of the areas that many teachers say is overlooked in new demands placed on them,” Mr. Martin said. “This is not like the ’40s or ’50s, when most of our schools did not have children in class who were learning English skills.”

The burgeoning population of non-English speaking children, concentrated in 10 states, spawned a national debate over how best to teach them and whether schools should reinforce their native languages.

“Some of the teachers say children come in with values about learning that are superior to students whose parents have been in this country a long time,” Mr. Martin said. Those children work diligently and excel in their new language and new schools.

But others have come from war-torn countries where they have had little or no formal schooling in their native languages.

The 2.1 million-member NEA entered the debate in 1981 on the side of bilingual education with a resolution urging that “those students whose primary language is other than English be placed in bilingual education programs to receive instruction in their native language from qualified teachers until such time as English proficiency is achieved.”

If no bilingual programs are available, the NEA wants students to be taught in English-as-a-second-language programs. Teachers in ESL programs usually do not speak the languages of their non-native English speakers.

Most of the federal money dispensed by the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs supports bilingual programs, which largely benefit Spanish-speaking youngsters.

Some highlights of the Education Department’s study:

* 73 percent of the LEPs are concentrated in California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois, in that order.

* Another 12 percent are in New Mexico, Arizona, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Michigan.

* West Virginia and Vermont reported the fewest LEP students: 231 and 500, respectively.

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