SAN FRANCISCO—The tiny girl with deep brown eyes follows a visitor around the room. “I can spell my name,” she announces. “S-a-r-e-t-h S-o-k. I am 5 years old. I know my address and phone number. How are you?”

For most of her life, Sareth lived in a refugee camp in Cambodia. Seven months ago, she came with her family to the United States and joined the more than 6,000 students who enter the San Francisco public schools each year unable to speak, read, write or understand English.

Now Sareth is learning most of her subjects in English from teacher Brigida Custodia, with back-up help in Cambodian from teacher aide Kim Hong Tan. Tan divides his time between several classes at the Filipino Education Center, where the student population is about one-third Filipino, one-third Vietnamese and one-third Cambodian.

The Filipino Center is one of three elementary schools and one high school here that serve as incubators for immigrant children during their crucial first year in America. A “newcomers” junior high will open in September.

With more immigrants arriving in this country than at any time since the turn of the century, public schools in many locales are struggling with the need to teach children who don’t speak English.

The problem is particularly burdensome in California, which has 5 of the nation’s 10 cities with the largest immigrant populations: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Anaheim, San Jose and Oakland.

California has developed some programs for these youngsters that are widely viewed as models, including the newcomers schools in San Francisco that stress intensive English instruction and offer counseling for parents to help them get jobs, set up homes and help their youngsters succeed in school.

A somewhat different approach for Spanish-speaking students–based on instruction in their native language until basic school skills and classroom confidence are acquired, followed by a gradual shift into English–is being employed in a pilot program at five schools in San Francisco, Los Angeles, suburban San Diego and two rural districts.

Students from this program have shown impressive gains in math and reading scores, according to the California Department of Education. Next September, the program will be expanded to eight more schools in Los Angeles, which has a large and growing Hispanic population.

Throughout California, teachers who work with immigrant students are required to be specialists in language development who have studied how children learn a second language. According to state education officials, very few exceptions are made.

San Francisco’s newcomers schools are open year-round, and students can enter whenever their families arrive in the United States. In the high school, up to two-thirds of each day is devoted to English instruction. On all levels, students receive instruction in some subjects in their native languages to keep them from falling behind, and they get a general introduction to American life.

Extra help is given to parents on the theory that students will do better if their home life is more settled and their parents are involved with their schools. This help begins with registration where translators are available in person or by phone for nearly any language.

“We have a computerized list of the language abilities of every one of our employees,” said Gloria Escobar, a school official. “We test every child in English and his or her native language.” Recorded messages in Spanish, Tagalog, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Cantonese are available 24 hours a day.

Nearly 10 percent of San Francisco’s public school enrollment each year consists of new immigrants, and about one-third of the enrollment consists of students from homes where the primary language is not English.

In Chicago, non-English speakers make up about 2.5 percent of the public school enrollment. About 10 percent of the students come from homes where English is not the primary language.

Nationally, it is estimated that 15 percent of public school children come from homes where some language other than English is spoken, and the number is growing.

“There isn’t a classroom in San Francisco that doesn’t have a limited- English student,” said Ligaya Avenida, bilingual education coordinator. “In many classes, they outnumber the students who are fluent in English. How well we educate these students will determine the future of our city.”

On the bulletin board in one 4th grade classroom at the Filipino Education Center, there are children’s drawings with essays written neatly in English about their homelands.

“I remember Cambodia,” wrote Pov Pum, 9. “I had a dog. This was our garden. This was our house. I remember the coconut tree.” Classmate Thuy Ngoc Ha drew a water color of what March is like in Vietnam and wrote, “The trees bore fruits. It gets very hot. Birds begin to sing. Flowers bloom.”

When students leave their one-year cocoon at the newcomers schools, they go to regular schools and are put in classes where least one-third of the students are fluent in English.

In the mixed-language classes, the learning goes both ways, even when no formal attempt is made to teach English-speaking children Spanish.

At Moscone Elementary School, Jessica Sneed, 8, says she is proud of learning to sing El Barquito de Papel, while classmate Jesus Galido, 9, reads with glee a poem in English about a monster who swallowed everything in a classroom, including the teacher.

“We see the Hispanic students by 5th grade competing favorably for spots in our gifted program and our Anglo students speaking Spanish without an accent,” said principal Nora Haymond.

Across town, the Mission Education Center is one of the five schools around the state that are using more–not less–Spanish to help students master English.

Another is Eastman Elementary School in East Los Angeles, a complex of buildings and courtyards decorated with brown-faced Mayan Indians and blazing suns, where more than half of its 1,717 students are in such a program. They are taught reading, math, writing, science and social studies in Spanish in kindergarten through 2d grade. They are taught English but are under no pressure to use it.

In 3d or 4th grade, the teachers begin to use English to review what already has been learned in Spanish.

By 4th or 5th grade, students are in all-English classes, but are offered after-school help in Spanish.

Now in its fourth year, most children in the program are making the transition from Spanish to English classes and reading on grade level–unlike their Hispanic peers in other California schools, who on average are two to three years behind grade level.

Sixth graders at Eastman last year, who had been in the program since 2d grade, scored at the 49th percentile in reading and at the 69th percentile in math. Before the program, Eastman 6th graders scored at the 30th percentile in reading and at the 50th percentile in math.

Tuesday: The immersion approach is working in El Paso.

The young immigrants. Chicago-area schools are struggling to teach non- English speaking children from all over the world. This is another in a series of occasional reports on how well schools meet the challenge.

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