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Vote in Calif. Stirs Up Wake Of Uncertainty

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Los Angeles

On Election Day, Francisco Gomez intercepted a note passed between two girls in his 6th-grade math and science class.

Mr. Gomez, who teaches at predominantly Hispanic Lennox Middle School in Los Angeles County, stuffed the note into a shirt pocket without reading it.

That day, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 187, a measure to deny most social services--including education in the public schools--to illegal immigrants.

Many such people live in Lennox--1.5 square miles of densely populated land under the jet approach into Los Angeles International Airport. In this low-income area, perhaps as many as four in 10 students are undocumented, according to Superintendent Kenneth L. Moffett of the Lenox school district, who is the 1994 national superintendent of the year.

At home on the evening of the Nov. 8 vote, Mr. Gomez took from his shirt pocket the note he had intercepted in class. When he read the penciled words on notebook paper, "I was heartbroken," he said.

Writing in Spanish, one of the girls had addressed the other, who is an undocumented immigrant. The note read in part: "You are a very funny friend. Don't ever change. ... I hope that Proposition 187 doesn't win, because I never want us to be separated."

Communities Upturned

While the law came under immediate court challenge and could be stopped from ever taking effect, the passage of Proposition 187 has nevertheless affected many school communities across the state that enroll students who are, or whose parents are, in this country illegally.

Students have debated the issue in class and taken to the streets in walkouts and other political demonstrations both for and against the measure. Teachers have taken sides, and children have tried to sway their parents' thinking on it.

But the impact is perhaps especially profound here, in and around California's largest city. About half the residents of the state live in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area.

The concentration of immigrants is high here, especially Hispanic immigrants who say they are the primary target of Proposition 187, in part because of political advertisements portraying Mexicans crossing the border into the United States.

Statewide, an estimated 410,000 of the state's 5.3 million students are illegal immigrants. Los Angeles County could be home to 80,000 to 200,000 such students, according to various estimates.

By many accounts the passage of the law has left students and parents fearful and uncertain about the future.

Adults always have stressed to students how important it is to get an education, said Leticia Quezada, a member of the Los Angeles school board, "and now they're told someone doesn't want them" to get one.

And it has left schools in the uneasy position of possibly having to turn in students to immigration authorities.

The new law calls for school districts to check the immigration status of all students and their parents by 1996. (See Education Week, 11/16/94.)

Officials are to report confirmed or suspected violators to the state and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The Aftermath

Proposition 187 has provided a real-life civics lesson for students, planting the seeds for a movement not unlike that of the antiwar movement of the 1960's, Ms. Quezada said.

And Wayne Fugate, a teacher at Lennox Middle School, said it has "awakened a sleeping giant. I don't think this generation or other Latino generations will let this happen again."

With several court challenges under way, they may not have to. The law may not go into effect for months, years--or ever.

Last week, a federal judge in Los Angeles placed a temporary restraining order against virtually all provisions of the proposition, including the sections relating to health care and K-12 education.

Meanwhile, supporters of Proposition 187 announced a recall campaign last week against members of the Los Angeles school board--including its president, Mark Slavkin--who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the new law.

And even though school districts and schools have reassuredstudents and parents that nothing has changed, worries abound.

Parents called Lennox Middle School the day after the election to find out whether they should send their children to school, said Pam Rector, a counselor at the school.

"Some people are going to be scared to even look at a teacher," Elvia Magdaleno, the 8th-grade class president at Lennox Middle School, said of fellow students. "Some people will just sit there and not talk, and get bad grades" for fear of revealing a foreign-sounding accent, she said.

And one boy, an 8th grader, said he was sad because his family planned to return to Mexico. He said he heard his father tell his uncle that they should go back because they "don't want no trouble."

"I think they are scared," the boy said.

'Children of Immigrants'

At Theodore Roosevelt High School, Proposition 187 has ignited strong feelings. Students at the school in the Boyle Heights section of east Los Angeles have had class discussions and organized a demonstration against the measure.

The 4,600-student school is 99 percent Hispanic. Most students are of Mexican heritage.

Principal Henry Ronquillo, a 1954 graduate of Roosevelt High School, declined to estimate how many students in the school may be undocumented aliens.

However, a teacher, John Fernandez, said that out of four class periods--about 140 students--60 volunteered to be part of a lawsuit challenging Proposition 187.

Mr. Ronquillo said the law's effect goes beyond current illegal immigrants. "Since we're the children of immigrants, it hits at all of us."

Mr. Ronquillo encouraged the teachers to structure lessons and activities around Proposition 187. And he organized a meeting after the election that about 700 parents attended.

Mr. Ronquillo said he is confident that the courts will overturn the law as unconstitutional. "No student at Roosevelt High School will ever be denied an educational opportunity because of Proposition 187," he said.

Even if it does go into effect, he said, "I don't intend to comply with 187."

"You don't punish kids because of the actions of their parents," he said.

Even if he wanted to comply, he said, with 4,600 students, "we don't have the staff to start checking on paperwork."

Students Speak Out

At Roosevelt High School last week, two periods of Omar Vega's history classes were given over todiscussion of Proposition 187.

"If California lets children and kids get a good career, California is going to grow up and help the whole United States," said Victor Daniel Cardenas, 17, a junior.

"I think if children will not be able to go to school, they will be ignorant and not learn nothing," said Nohemi Rangel, 14, a 9th grader who wants to become a doctor. "I think it would be sad for me, because I like to come to school."

Reading from an essay she had written on her opinion on 187, Maria Barrio, 17, who is in 11th grade, said that if children are not able to go to school, they will get involved in "gangs, in illegal drugs, and prostitution."

Carmen Tiguila, a 17-year-old junior, was succinct: "All our dreams are down and out."

Although voices supporting Proposition 187 are rare at Roosevelt High School, they do exist. Marie, a senior of Hispanic descent who asked that her last name not be used, jumped into the discussion in Mr. Vega's class. "Everybody wants a better life, but what about the people born here?" Marie asked.

The longer it takes for Proposition 187 to work its way through the courts, "that's taking away more money" from legal residents for services to undocumented people, she said.

Enforcing the law becomes another matter for many teachers.

Manuel Gonzalez, who teaches bilingual history to students in grades 9-11 at Roosevelt High School, said he will not enforce the law if it goes into effect.

"It's none of my business" what students' immigration status is, he said. Instead, he said, "I'm going to ask them why they didn't bring their homework."

"I'm not an immigration agent," he added.

Mr. Fernandez, who teaches English as a second language, said, "I know teachers who will resign before they have to turn in undocumented students."

But there are teachers who support Proposition 187 and would have no problem enforcing it.

"I think our education system is in an awful lot of trouble," said Marjorie Webb, a special-education teacher at Dale Junior High School in Anaheim, Calif.

At her school, where she said half the students are Hispanic, it takes her extra time and effort to have a note or phone call home to parents translated into Spanish.

"Not having to provide services to illegal immigrants would free up a lot of time, energy, services, focus that would affect our legal population in a very positive way," Ms. Webb said.

Shock and Mourning

In the 6,000-student, K-8 Lennox district, the election left students and teachers shocked and disappointed.

Many, especially at the middle school, had actively fought against the measure. Students and teachers had gone door to door in a get-out-the-vote effort and had attended a large march and demonstration against Proposition 187 last month at City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

The students last week staged a stay-in--about a third remained at school after regular school hours. The demonstration symbolized their desire to stay in school and get an education, they said.

Also after the election, students collected more than 1,300 signatures of staff members, students, and parents on a petition calling for the Lennox school board to publicly support the suit filed by the Los Angeles and San Francisco school districts to stop the law's implementation. The petition also asked the board to use its resources to prevent the law's enforcement.

Students presented the petition, which all the districts' principals signed, to the school board last week. The board took no action on the requests at that meeting.

Students and teachers also let their emotions show in other ways.

Some teachers wore black the day after the election, and the next day, nearly everyone at the 1,800-student middle school arrived dressed in black, teachers said last week.

"We mourned that loss because it was heartfelt," said Mr. Fugate, the 8th-grade language-arts and social-studies teacher.

Administrators and staff members in Lennox said they have worked hard over many years to build a trusting relationship with students and parents, many of whom work at the airport or in area hotels.

But, said Principal Larry Kennedy: "The feeling is now, 'Can the schools be trusted?"'

"That," he said, "is what hurts us so much."

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