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Immigration Plays Key Supporting Role in Record-Enrollment Drama

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The inquiries have become so routine over the years that school officials in Dade County, Fla., often don't remember who called or from where. They call, it seems, from everywhere.

"What do we do with curriculum? How do we recruit teachers? How fast do the kids learn English?" Mercedes Toural rattles off the questions she has heard umpteen times from school districts across the country seeking advice on how to educate newly arrived immigrant students.

When she ran the district's bilingual-education program, Ms. Toural, who is now the system's director of foundation skills, was the person who usually dealt with those frantic phone calls. She answered them by sending out the district's at-the-ready, shrink-wrapped packets that explain its procedures for educating limited-English-proficient children, many of whom are immigrants.

About a quarter of Dade's 330,000 students were born outside the United States. For the past 36 months, the nation's fourth-largest district has added an average of 1,332 foreign-born students a month.

Immigration and a general migration south to the Sun Belt city of Miami have contributed to the speedy growth of the district--about 10,000 new students a year for the past several years.

"Without the foreign-born students, we'd be in a pretty static situation," said Bailey Stewart, the district's coordinator of student services and attendance. "They're helping to drive this growth."

Dade County is a dramatic example of how immigration can affect a school district. But immigration alone is not the driving factor behind the record enrollment expected this year in schools nationwide, according to such demographers as Harold L. Hodgkinson, the co-director of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership.

Immigrants tend to be concentrated geographically, with just a few states becoming home to the vast majority. In those states, immigrants are likely to be a primary reason for enrollment increases, demographers say. But this does not mean that immigrant students are not making their presence felt in school systems across the country--including in some districts where you might not expect to find them.

The Dade County schools frequently host visitors from countries as far-flung as New Zealand and Japan who come to see the melting pot in action. And it was Dade that last year sent educators to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to evaluate the federal government's makeshift schools designed for Cuban and Haitian refugees when political unrest in both countries triggered an exodus.

When a potential influx of immigrants is looming, Dade school officials are on the phone with their contacts at the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

But even relatively large numbers of immigrant children don't faze Dade. Officials there like to boast that the district accommodates new immigrants by being in a constant state of preparedness, much the same way as the South Florida county braces for hurricane season. When unrest in Nicaragua meant 7,000 children from that country alone showed up at Dade's door during the 1988-89 school year, it was just "business as usual," Mr. Stewart said.

Immigration Increase

While immigrants certainly have contributed to the enrollment boomlet nationwide, it is mostly a "home-grown commodity," said Carol J. DeVita, a demographer with the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, referring to the large number of children born to baby boom parents.

"Immigration alone is not responsible for [the boomlet], but it has helped boost it," she said. "And in a California or Texas, immigrants make up a much higher percentage of the population than in the rest of the country. So immigrants will represent a larger share of their boomlet."

Analysts are not able to say exactly what portion of the enrollment boomlet immigrants are responsible for, but in 1994 the fertility rate of foreign-born women was about 50 percent higher than that of native-born women. So although the foreign-born made up only 8.5 percent of the U.S. population in that year, about 15 percent of the children born in 1994 had foreign-born mothers.

It's clear that the sheer numbers of immigrant children have jumped since the early 1970s, when U.S. school enrollment had its previous high-water mark. And where those immigrants come from has shifted from a largely European base--though Mexico has been the No. 1 source of legal immigration for decades--to one dominated by Latin America and Asia.

But immigration analysts note that in the 1970s, the foreign-born made up only 4.8 percent of the total U.S. population--the lowest proportion in America's history. That low point is explained by unusually low U.S. immigration through the Depression and World War II.

In 1970, roughly 1.6 percent of all U.S. children ages 5-17 were foreign-born. By 1980, the proportion had more than doubled, to 3.4 percent. In 1994, foreign-born children made up 4.4 percent of that age group in the United States.

While these percentages show a steady increase, they only tell part of the story. They account only for children who were born in a country other than the United States. They do not reflect the children who are born to immigrant parents, first-generation Americans who often bring to school many of the same challenges as their foreign-born peers.

Last year, there were about 2.2 million foreign-born children between the ages of 5 and 17 in the United States. But an additional 6.2 million children born in the United States had at least one immigrant parent, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

Moving to Middle America

Where immigrants go, for the most part, is largely predictable. Historically they have tended to settle in just a few locations: The vast majority head for the urban centers of California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey, and the nation's largest concentrations of immigrant students are found there. In fact, had it not been for immigration, some states, such as Massachusetts and New York, would have lost population in the early 1990s, analysts say.

For decades, school systems in such large cities as New York and Los Angeles have seen steady streams of immigrant students. And--for decades--they have run programs to educate them. But some observers see a filtering-out process taking hold, with immigrants cropping up in smaller cities, as well as in more suburban and rural communities that may have no experience in educating students who are from different cultures and may not speak English. Those children are showing up not just in traditionally immigrant-heavy states, but in places like Iowa and Arkansas.

"As the numbers of immigrants increase, you get the phenomenon of even places that didn't have many before can have noticeable numbers now," said Jeffrey S. Passel, the director of the program for research on immigration policy at the Urban Institute. "There's a definite trend of immigrants moving into smaller cities and rural areas, driven by employment."

Secure jobs and a low cost of living have pulled immigrants to the Midwest, often to work in the meat-packing industry.

That's a big part of why the schools in Rogers, Ark., look the way they do today. Chicken plants dot the landscape in Rogers and much of northwest Arkansas. At the beginning of 1991, Rogers had 35 limited-English-proficient students out of 7,190 K-12 students. By 1994, it had 300 LEP students out of 8,060 students. Last year, the number of LEP children had jumped to 940 out of 9,400.

Though most of Rogers' newcomers from places like Texas and Guatemala speak Spanish, 26 languages are represented in the district, which has embarked on a hiring frenzy to serve its burgeoning minority population. Since 1994, the district has hired Tricia C. Garcia to coordinate its English-as-a-second-language programs, along with dozens of teachers, a bilingual psychologist, an ombudsman who serves as a link to the Hispanic community, and a bilingual counselor for the high school.

"I was pretty shocked when I got here. I thought, who's going to be in Arkansas?" said Ms. Garcia, whose husband was transferred to Rogers two years ago from Fort Worth, Texas, where she taught LEP students. "I cried when I turned in my resignation there because I thought 'I'll never be able to work with these kids again.' But my husband had called me back when he moved out here first and said: 'No problem. You'll have a job.' And he was right."

'A Real Change'

School officials in Marshalltown, Iowa, a community of roughly 28,000, report a similar pattern. Instead of chickens, their town has hogs. Hispanic enrollment has nearly tripled since 1992; some of the new students are recent immigrants from Latin America.

"It's been a real change for our teachers and our whole system," said Stephen H. Williams, the superintendent of the 5,000-student Marshalltown district.

The school systems in Missoula, Mont., and Wausau, Wis., have sizable Hmong populations--many of the children came from refugee families that church groups and other organizations helped resettle in the United States after the Vietnam War ended in the 1970s.

"People shouldn't be surprised," Ms. Garcia said. "Everybody's going to be dealing with this sooner or later."

Go directly to the next story in this series, "Older Students Make Presence Felt in Classes," Sept. 18, 1996.


"Knocking at the Doors" was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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