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Panel: Schools Must Aid Immigrants in 'Struggle to Succeed'

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WASHINGTON--Arguing that educators have "no choice but to face the new realities'' posed by burgeoning immigrant enrollments, the first comprehensive study on the subject calls for fundamental changes in school structure to make success possible for America's "new voices.''

In press conferences last week in Washington and Los Angeles, participants in the two-year study, conducted by the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, described the educational difficulties of immigrant children as one of the most serious challenges of the day for schools.

"We know enough about the problems that limit the lives of our country's children to make over a period of time a substantial improvement in their prospects,'' writes Harold Howe 2nd, senior lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and member of the study's advisory panel, in an introduction to the report. "But we are at a loss for the political will and the leadership to act on our knowledge.'' Among the report's key statistics:

  • There are more than 2.5 million school-age immigrants across the country, concentrated mostly in California, New York, and Texas.
  • That figure may be conservative because of the increasing number of undocumented immigrants, who are arriving in the country at an estimated rate of 100,000 to 300,000 each year.
  • Most recent immigrants have come from Mexico, Asia, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. More than 50 percent live in California.
  • Thirty-two percent of recent arrivals are under the age of 18.
  • Illegal and legal immigrant children now represent about 6 percent of precollegiate students; that proportion will grow in the years ahead.
  • In areas with concentrations of immigrants, immigrant enrollment in some schools is as high as 96 percent.
  • Thirteen percent of Mexican immigrants, estimated to be the largest single group of new immigrants, graduate from high school; 81 percent of Filipinos graduate.

Cross-Cultural Conflicts

Citing the language barrier as the most immediate problem facing immigrant students, the report condemns such movements as "English Only,'' and "English First,'' which are lobbying to have states adopt English as their "official'' language and to reduce public funding for bilingual programs.

Such efforts say to immigrant students, "'This school thinks that you, your family, and the place you came from are no good,''' Mr. Howe said at the press conference. "That is not a useful way to motivate children.''

The report estimates that currently there are 3.5 million to 5.5 million public-school students in need of English instruction. That number is expected to increase 35 percent by the year 2000.

Many immigrant children who are suddenly placed in English-language programs, the study points out, are not literate in their own language. Some, in fact, such as those from Laotian hill tribes, have never encountered written language at all.

But a far greater problem than the lack of language fluency, says the report, is the fact that the lives of the new immigrant children have often been shaped by violence, war, and poverty.

The report offers dramatic testimony from teachers on the impact of past traumas on some immigrant children.

One teacher describes, for example, the anxiety of a Guatemalan girl who refused to use the color red in her art-class drawings. The teacher later learned, she said, that the child's entire family had been massacred, and she had been locked in a house for 18 hours with the bloodied bodies.

Educators' insensitivity to such children, the report contends, compounds the more personal difficulties they experience in America--including violent racial clashes, poverty, lack of housing and health care, and--with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986--their families' lack of employment.

Fear of Deportation

The Reform Act, which requires employers to verify that employees hired since Nov. 7, 1986, are eligible to work in the United States, took effect in June 1987 with the promise of penalties for employers who did not comply.

School officials in Los Angeles and the surrounding county have attributed a sharp decline in enrollment growth for this school year to passage of the act. Immigrant parents uncertain about their status either left the country or pulled their children out of school in fear of deportation, educators speculate. (See Education Week, April 20, 1988.)

John Willshire Carrera, director of the NCAS study, said last week, however, that those students most likely "dropped out of the system'' to avoid being deported, but did not leave the country.

Sharply criticized in the NCAS report are the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's detention centers, where minors are detained if found without documentation.

The report describes the facilities as prisons where no educational instruction is provided, and where adults and children of mixed sexes and cultures are forced to sleep and live together in close quarters, often for months.

INS officials in Washington said last week that they had not seen the report and declined to comment.

The Challenge

Citing evidence of continuing resistance among school officials to permitting undocumented immigrants to enroll, the report sets forth the legal grounds--from the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Plyler v. Doe to federal statutes--that establish the right of illegal aliens to schooling.

But acknowledging that right alone is not enough for school leaders, the report argues. It sharply criticizes the way schools place and monitor the progress of immigrant students, citing in particular the use of standardized testing for placement or achievement, as well as such "inflexible'' practices as requiring students to repeat grades, tracking, and placing immigrant students in special-education programs.

"The great immigration wave of the last 15 years seems charted on a collision course with the school-reform movement of the 1980's,'' warns the report.

As part of the broad structural change it says is needed to respond to the immigrant population, the report calls for improved training of teachers and support staff, as well as a recognition of the "multicultural understanding'' necessary to meet the needs of immigrant students.

Schools must also try harder to encourage immigrant parents to get involved, the report says.

The 129-page report, titled New Voices, was underwritten primarily by the Ford Foundation, the Atlantic Richfield Foundation, the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, and American Baptist Churches USA.

Copies of the report are available for $12.95 plus $2 for postage and handling. Write: National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 100 Boylston St., Suite 737, Boston, Mass. 02116

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