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Study Faults Calif. on Immigrants

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Today, one out of every six public-school students in California is foreign-born, reports a new study that charges most of the state's school districts with being "woefully unprepared" to address such children's educational needs.

The number of immigrant students in the public schools has more than doubled in the past 10 years and is likely to grow by roughly 7 percent annually over the next decade, the study notes.

But it found that few districts collect data on these students.

The study was conducted over an 18-month period by California Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization dedicated to analyzing the economic, political, and social implications of population changes in the state.

"Immigrant children are not a fringe element of our student population--they are a large and increasing core part of our schools and future society," the report states. "But most academic programs sadly ignore this reality."

Most school districts, the study says, are "overwhelmed by the sudden changes in their student populations and [are] scrambling to develop programs and approaches that might work."

Other districts, according to the report, are "oblivious or stubbornly refusing to recognize that changes in staffing, curriculum, and program structure might be in order."

The study, titled "Crossing the Schoolhouse Border: Immigrant Students and the California Public Schools," describes the social and educational experiences of these students and how the schools are re4sponding. It contains a wide range of recommendations for state policymakers and local school boards and officials.

The report's conclusions are based on interviews with 360 immigrant students in 33 districts, and nearly 200 teachers, school administrators, researchers, parents, and community and social-services advocates.

In addition, the group held two public hearings to complete the study and conducted a review of existing literature on the topic.

The work was funded by the Walter S. Johnson Foundation and the Rosenberg Foundation.

Little Data Gathered

The study's authors write that they were "shocked" that so little information is collected on immigrant students by the state and by local districts. Most districts, they found, do not know how many immigrants are enrolled in their schools, where those who are enrolled are from, or what their academic needs are.

School districts rarely perform a comprehensive assessment of immigrant children when they register for school, the study found.

Emphasis is placed on the child's age and ability to speak English, ac8cording to the report, with little consideration given to previous academic background, literacy in the native language, or the trauma many immigrant children have suffered as a result of war, extreme poverty, or being separated from their families.

Roughly 40 percent of the students interviewed for the study said they believed they were not placed in the right grade level when they first entered school in this country.

The study also found that the "vast majority" of foreign-born students in the state are receiving inadequate English-language instruction, and little, if any, academic support in their native language.

Most school programs, the report states, "leave immigrant students to sink or swim virtually on their own."

"The majority appear to be sinking," it concludes.

A critical shortage of certified bilingual teachers and political disagreements over bilingual education in general, have contributed to this problem, the authors note.

Incidents of Harassment

But they point out that, in addition to the academic challenges they face, immigrant students often find themselves the victims of violence, intimidation, and harassment.

"Almost every student in our sample," the study states, "reported that the first school year included incidents of being called names, pushed or spat upon, deliberately tricked, teased, and laughed at because of their race, language difficulties, accent, or foreign dress."

A spokesman for Bill Honig, the state's superintendent of public instruction, said last week that the school chief had been briefed on the report but needed to study it more carefully before commenting on its proposals.

"The report raises many legitimate issues and makes some good recommendations," said Susan Lange, the spokesman. "Clearly, there is a problem, and we have to deal with that."


Among the report's recommendations are that:

State and local school officials begin gathering data on students by their place of birth and background.

School districts develop a comprehensive intake and assessment system, administered by a trained bilingual staff, that determines students' English-language proficiency, reading and writing ability in both English and their native language, educational background, and health status.

In addition, districts should make every effort possible to provide immigrant students with native-language instruction, taught by a credentialed bilingual teacher, until they are able to fully participate in a regular English-language program.

And districts should be sure that any "pull-out" programs are aligned with the regular curriculum and of equal quality.

Lawmakers launch a state program specifically designed to recruit and train bilingual teachers. Such a program could include forgiveable loans and salary bonuses.

Teacher-training institutions and the state's commission of teacher credentialing require all prospective teachers to take a course in methods for teaching foreign-born students and those with limited proficiency in English.

Copies of the report are available for $6 each from California Tomorrow, Fort Mason, Building B, San Francisco, Calif. 94123.

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