Something Has To Give

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The atuhor is the superintendent of the Dade County, Fla., public schools. He immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1961.

Phuonglien Nguyen is an American. Conceived as Saigon fell, she was whisked from a homeland she would never know, across an ocean wrongly called Pacific, to a land rightly called free.

There, she was born in Miami. A gifted student, she studied hard in public schools as her mother cooked and sweated through years of 12-hour workdays. Last June in the South Florida suburbs, far from the fields of Vietnam, she become the first in her family to complete high school. She did so with honors. Today, the Westinghouse science-prize finalist is a premedical student at Harvard.

America needs Phuonglien Nguyen. She and millions of other immigrants and children of immigrants give this nation far more than they will ever take.

Still, immigration has its costs, some of them staggering. They are costs borne almost entirely by a handful of U.S. states, cities, and school boards. In Los Angeles and New York, El Paso and Honolulu, the stress is mounting. Rupture is imminent.

In Greater Miami, immigrant children enroll in the Dade County public schools at an average of 11,000 per year. That's 5,000 per year faster than we can build new classrooms. Something has to give. It cannot continue to be the education of these immigrant children.

Washington must act, decisively and now. It must change its immigration policy to spread both the rewards and the costs of immigration across our entire nation.

Specifically, Washington must increase its subsidy of immigrant children's education while offering incentives to their families to settle in communities with space and resources to spare.

In Dade County, educating a foreign-born student costs $1,141 more each year than educating a native-born student. Of that additional expense, the federal government pays only $156. Multiply that by 75,446 foreign-born students (out of a total enrollment of 315,000), and the burden on Dade's public schools is overwhelming. That obligation can only increase as desperate families continue to flee the volatile nations of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The costs to Dade County are both capital and operational. More students means more schools, or at least the need for them. The Dade County public school district has built 26 schools in the past five years. We have 10 schools under construction and 18 on the boards. That's a lot of construction in a short time. Still, the rate of immigration outpaces our capacity to build. As we continue our construction program, we are forced to try alternatives. Some are unorthodox, and some are less than ideal.

Some schools may be forced to run on double sessions. Some might need to operate year-round. And some have already rented space in shopping malls, office buildings, churches, movie theaters, or other locations.

For years, overcrowded North Miami Elementary has rented space in a strip mall across the street. And just this month, the Dade school board leased an office building in an industrial and residential neighborhood to house students whose 70-year-old school had just about given out. Their new school won't be ready for two more years.

Besides more buildings, an increase in immigrant students means more special programs and special teachers to meet their special needs. This year, we have youngsters from 122 different countries who speak 116 different languages. Most need intensive instruction in English. Some need counseling. And some--those from the jungles and fields of the least developed countries--need schooling in the most basic survival and social skills, such as how to use a toilet. We have the programs to help them, but those programs cost money.

The rewards of immigration, however, far outweigh the costs. The infusion of foreign-born American residents has vitalized communities across the nation. Look at Miami. Fueled by an influx of refugees, mostly from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Haiti, the city has grown from a resort town to a sophisticated metropolis in 30 years. Miami is richer for their presence, their sweat, and their dreams.

Dade County public schools, too, have shared in those gifts. While most urban school districts lose enrollment during a typical school year, Dade gains. This gain translates into a more stable workforce and academic schedule. And the wealth of experiences and cultures brought to the classroom by foreign-born students and teachers stimulates learning in profound and creative ways.

American communities with the resources, and those with the economic need, would benefit from enticing immigrants to their neighborhoods. And the federal government would do well to support them. Washington must provide, or encourage states and communities to provide, employment and some educational incentives.

The approach must be objective, systematic, and comprehensive. Such incentives worked in the 1960's with the first refugees from Fidel Castro's Cuba. While most came to Miami, many settled in other communities throughout the United States, lured by the promise of better jobs.

Olga Alfonso's family wound up in Paducah, Ky. Young Olga studied hard and eventually became a teacher, a linguist, a journalist, an actor, and a runner-up in the Miss Illinois pageant.

America's immigrants bring an abundance of energy and talent to American life. It's a wealth that must be shared, along with the cost. The nation--and all of its people in all of its communities--will reap ample rewards.

Go directly to "It Is a Human Issue," Annette L. Lemons.

Vol. 14, Issue 17

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