From War-Torn Nations to 'Newcomer' School

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San Francisco--El Salvador. Ethiopia. Cambodia. Nicaragua. Vietnam. War-battered countries where children who can't read know how to assemble machine guns in seconds.

Millions flee such countries every year, some simply escaping, others looking for what they hope will be a better life. And a handful of those refugees arrive in San Francisco, a heterogeneous city in which 48 percent of the public-school system's 63,000 students do not speak English at home and 29 percent are deemed less than proficient in English. Many are illiterate in their native tongues.

In 1979, this city established Newcomer High School--a one-year program devoted to teaching refugee students ages 14 through 17 who have less than eight years of education. It was a response both to the world political situation--the influx of Southeast Asian boat people and the fall of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua--and to changes in the school system itself.

"In 1979, Superintendent [Robert] Alioto redesigned the junior high and high-school system," recalls Paul Cheng, principal of the school. "Ninth grade was moved into high school and the impact was enormous; all the high schools became extremely overcrowded." Although every major highinued on Page X An old school for new students school in the San Francisco area offers bilingual education, Mr. Cheng says, the need became overwhelming for a school devoted exclusively to teaching high-school students with very little ability in English and inadequate educational backgrounds.

The result is what Mr. Cheng describes as "the only free-standing school in the country where the exclusive purpose is to attain language proficiency and learn about American culture--both the positive and the negative."

'Didn't Fit the Mold'

Mr. Cheng, speaking of the need for such a school, recalls how his family arrived from Hong Kong in 1953: "There was no assistance and the isolation was enormous." As an immigrant in a New York suburb, he "didn't fit into the regular mold."

Nor do most of his students. Almost 500 of them, many living in the immigrant ghettos of Chinatown and the Mission District, travel daily to the freshly painted school, located in affluent Pacific Heights. For most students, this hilltop neighborhood of graceful Victorian homes is their only glimpse of the American Dream.

They are referred through San Francisco's Intake Center, which receives all students, kindergarten through 12th grade, who are new to the country. They are tested and evaluated, then placed. Their citizenship status is often vague, but, according to Mr. Cheng, that is not the school's concern.

"We don't want to become an arm of the ins"--the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service--Mr. Cheng explains. "We don't know how many are here illegally, and we don't ask. The ins has never bothered us."

Veneer of Normality

In the halls of the school, the usual student scenes are played out--last-minute checking of homework, flirting, macho poses. In the classroom, when the teacher asks for essays, the age-old excuses are made: ''Teacher, I left it in my locker." "Teacher, I forgot it."

And in the yard, a heated game of basketball is played during P.E. time (although the students must play in their street clothes because there is no locker room to change in).

But beneath the veneer of normality, many of Newcomer's students live every day with the residue of their country's politics. They must not only adjust to a vastly different world, but must leave behind memories of murdered friends and family members, of forced conscription, of a homeland that in most cases they left out of fear rather than desire. Most live with relatives, but few came over with one, let alone both, parents.

"It is very difficult to live in my country," says Rene Martinez, a 16-year-old El Salvadoran, who came to the United States in April."This is another life for me. I don't want to fight anymore."

Few Dropouts

Despite the psychological and educational obstacles the students face, the completion rate at Newcomer is almost 100 percent, Mr. Cheng says. Some must stay a little longer than one year, such as one Cambodian boy who saw his mother and father beheaded.

"It was recommended that he stay for a third semester, to get a little more help," the principal says. "And one Vietnamese boy could not adjust to the rigors of high school and eventually had to transfer out. But the vast majority make the leap."

After one year, the students go to a regular high school, where they are expected to perform at the appropriate grade level with continued bilingual help. Some, like Kim from Vietnam, hope to go on to a community college. Others hope to get a good job, like Abdo Hussain of Yemen, whose family scraped together enough money to buy him a visa to the United States.

Variety of Approaches

The school receives $185,000 in state and federal aid annually, Mr. Cheng says. It employs 26 full-time certified staff members, including Mr. Cheng, who also teaches some classes, and two counselors, one fluent in Chinese and one in Spanish. Most of the staff members say they choose to work at the school because they find it more enjoyable and fulfilling than a regular public high school.

Bilingual classes are taught in six different languages--Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Pilipino, Cambodian, and Laotian. Initially, the students are taught in their native language. Later, an increasing amount of English is used. About 3 to 4 percent of the students speak other languages--Arabic, Japanese, Russian--and are placed in an individual learning program using English and, if possible, the student's primary language.

Three different types of English as a Second Language courses are required: esl development, emphasizing such language skills as aural comprehension, pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar; esl language lab, which expands upon and reinforces the skills taught in language-development classes; and esl reading, which emphasizes skills in reading readiness, oral reading, and comprehension.

Mathematics and social studies are also taught, with bilingual support where feasible; a few electives, including biology, art, and typing, are also available.

Health, Food Problems

Classes are only one part of what the staff must offer the students, who bring with them problems not typically seen in American high schools. Many come with poor6health resulting from inadequate diets and hygiene. They may have poor vision that has not been corrected, or a heart problem that was never diagnosed. "One kid came in with polio, which we just don't see these days," said Susan Scheiter, head counselor for the school.

Less serious, but also an issue, is the difficulty the cafeteria faces in accommodating the culinary tastes of such a diverse population. Marco Polo may have imported spaghetti from China, but the Chinese students don't like it--or, for that matter, ravioli, Mr. Cheng says. Many Asian students also have difficulty digesting milk, so there is a container in the cafeteria for unused milk cartons.

However, the primary problem, outside of language, is the students' ethnocentrism, according to Mr. Cheng. "It is an impossibility at the beginning for the students to comprehend the different cultures and languages," he says. Many students come from countries where the population was largely homogeneous; to move from a village in Laos to the multi-ethnic neighborhoods of San Francisco is a cultural shock that should not be underestimated, Ms. Scheiter says.

"On the whole, the students are eager for education and happy to be here," she observes. "But there are factors that complicate their lives. They are separated from their own families and united with a family they haven't lived with. We are as much family to them as their own family; they may know us for the same length of time as the family they're living with."

The cultural differences, especially between Asians and Hispanics, sometimes create difficulties, staff members say. And the problems within nationalities can be evenel5lmore divisive. Notes Jocelyn Tolleson, a teacher: "Some of these students now playing basketball were soldiers last year--and some were on opposite sides."

The school takes pains to combat the prejudices and fears each student brings to the school. "America had a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of discrimination against people of color, which many of these students are," Mr. Cheng says. "The students need to know that history. They are natural ambassadors to build racial, ethnic, and linguistic tolerance."

'Another Life'

For most students, the United3States offers their only hope, but beneath the adaptability typical of adolescents is a nagging nostalgia for their homeland, a persistent sadness, their teachers say.

In an essay for his class, 14-year-old Harold Murillo wrote this about his country:

"My country's name is Nicaragua. In my country, people speak Spanish, English, Miskito, Sumo, and Rama. There are people very friendly and their colors are black, brown, and white.

"I like my country very much, because it's beautiful. Maybe in the future, it'll be more beautiful than now."

Vol. 04, Issue 22

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