PROVIDENCE – Census figures showing that the city’s Hispanic population has doubled in the last decade come as no surprise to school officials.

Since 1990, public school enrollment has swelled from about 19,550 to more than 26,400, with the concentration of Latino students jumping from 28 percent to 50 percent.

The trend of that School Department data is mirrored in the latest Census figures. They show that the city population aged 17 and under accounted for nearly half the overall increase between 1990 and 2000.

And the proportion of Latinos among children and youths jumped from about 24.5 percent to nearly 45 percent in the last decade.

The influx of students from Spanish-speaking homes, many of them recent arrivals, has had broad implications for public education here, not the least of which has been the addition of enough classrooms and teachers to duplicate a school district the size of East Providence.

With overall enrollment figures reflecting a 35-percent surge in the last decade, the city has been increasingly hard-pressed to finance school operations. State aid to education has filled the gap, but city officials say it is never enough.

The city school budget has climbed to about $ 250 million, with nearly $ 152 million coming from the General Assembly between two and three times the amount of a decade ago.

Of 13,301 Latino students in the school district, 4,667 are enrolled in programs for children with limited skills in English. A decade ago, the limited-English enrollment was slightly less than 2,000.

Providence is the only district in the state that offers bilingual education.

Latino students in its transitional program take up to 3 hours a day of English as a Second Language, and take other subjects, such as social studies, math, and science, in Spanish.

This approach is under attack by a bill that would require English-only instruction in an “immersion” program similar to one that has resulted in improved test scores in California.

Its principal sponsor, Rep. Myrna George, D-Exeter, says “bilingual education has become a multibillion-dollar business of bureaucrats and militant separatists.”

And she said parents increasingly see it as a “wall around a linguistic ghetto” that holds their children back economically.

But the first Hispanic school superintendent in Providence, Diana Lam, disagrees passionately.

Lam began learning English in kindergarten in a bilingual elementary school in her native Peru, and her two children, born in the United States, are also fluent in both English and Spanish.

She said she embraces a duality of language and culture, suggesting that any bilingual program in which a student becomes stalled in one language is not well-implemented.

One Providence elementary school runs a “dual-language” bilingual program, involving an equal number of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers in kindergarten through the third grade.

The program, the only one of its kind in the state, is at the Alfred Lima School, which expects to extend it through the fifth grade in two years.

Lam said she envisions offering more “dual language” programs that value both cultures.

Lam said existing programs for students with limited English skills, most of which aim to help students make the transition to English-only classes, are under evaluation.

“I am determined that whatever we do” in the future, “it will be of good quality,” she said.

Within the Spanish-speaking community in Providence, there seems to be strong support for bilingual education, but fierce debate over the way it should be carried out, with some accusing Lam of its “destruction.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, the superintendent says.

Like other urban areas across the country, Providence has struggled to find enough bilingual teachers to staff its programs. The district now has 86 teachers in bilingual education programs, out of a faculty of about 2,200.

Another 42 are employed in bilingual special education, including 8 professionals who make evaluations and recommendations for Spanish-speaking children.

Lam said she is thinking about turning to a recruiting firm that would provide candidates for bilingual teaching positions from the ranks of recent college graduates in the liberal arts or professionals who might be considering a midcareer change.

The prevalence of the Latino population has implications not only for the pedagogy of the classroom but for every aspect of school operations.

That includes building the bilingual capacity of staff to deal with parents, said Lam, who has made parental involvement one of her three overarching goals for the school district.

At the secondary level, some Hispanic parents have expressed concern for what is said to be a rising dropout rate for Latinos, although the district has issued no figures since Lam became superintendent in August 1999.

In the meantime, the state Department of Education reports that overall school enrollment data in Providence indicate that there is a 37-percent chance that a student who was a freshman last year will not graduate.

That figure is about 8.5-percent higher than the dropout rate the state calculated for the previous school year.

Lam said dropout statistics can be reported and manipulated in many different ways. A district task force is studying the entire phenomenon, she said.

One way of keeping youths in school is offering them a better- quality secondary education, and to that end, Lam has directed all the city’s high schools to devote this year to redesigning their programs.

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