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Dade Board Backs Makeshift Centers for New Immigrant Students

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Concerned that political instability in Haiti and Cuba might prompt an influx of refugee students, the Dade County, Fla., school board has approved a plan to serve new immigrant students in makeshift classrooms instead of in regular schools.

The plan, approved last month, has ignited debate among civil-rights workers and advocates for immigrant students who fear that the centers--to be housed in such places as office buildings and shopping malls--would become linguistically and ethnically segregated student warehouses.

The Dade County plan reflects a larger debate over the equity and educational benefits of "newcomer schools'' that serve immigrant students in such places as New York City and San Francisco.

Under the plan, students would stay up to a year in the centers. Of the 307,000 students in the Dade system, which includes Miami, roughly 26 percent are foreign-born. An average of 1,000 such students enroll in the district's schools each month.

"This seems like a real departure from what we've always tried to do in Dade County,'' said John M. Ratliff, a lawyer with Legal Services of Greater Miami. "We've handled large-scale immigration before without this drastic an approach.''

After the so-called Mariel boatlift deposited some 15,000 Cuban students in the Miami area in 1980, the district set up two temporary centers for them inside regular schools. The students eventually were absorbed into other schools.

But today the schools are already overcrowded, said Superintendent Octavio J. Visiedo, the plan's chief author. He pointed to schools such as the one his daugher attends, which was built for 3,000 students but holds 5,200.

"This is not going to resolve the overcrowding problem, but if we don't do this these kids are going to fall through the cracks,'' said Mr. Visiedo, who arrived in Miami from Cuba in 1961 at age 9.

Transition to Schools Eyed

The plan would kick in when districtwide daily enrollment climbs to 100 foreign students above the average daily enrollment. Once that level has been reached, school officials would decide how many centers to establish and where to locate them.

The centers would offer an intensive English program in addition to such core subjects as mathematics and science, which would be taught in students' native languages. Such services as vocational and literacy programs would also be available for parents.

While many of those services are already provided in the regular schools, Mr. Visiedo said that concentrating them in the centers would make it easier for parents to enroll their children and insure that they are served.

Pre-kindergarten students and those whose English proficiency is deemed sufficient would receive waivers to enter regular schools.

The plan does not say how much it would cost to hire additional staff members to serve the students.

Civil-rights advocates expressed concern over what criteria would be used in deciding when to transfer students from the centers into regular schools. Mr. Visiedo said that issue is still undecided.

A potential obstacle to the plan is a consent decree the state signed in 1990 that governs the education of its limited-English-proficient students. The state education department's office charged with monitoring compliance with the decree is reviewing the plan. The U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights has not yet done so.

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