San Francisco May Close Pioneering Newcomer School

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San Francisco's Newcomer High School faces an uncertain future.

Since 1979, the blue, 1920s-era building has provided an educational sanctuary for newly arrived students from foreign lands.

For youngsters new to the United States, with little or no English, the average American high school can be an overwhelming place. Newcomer High was designed to provide a chance for those students to ease slowly into a strange and often bewildering society.

The school is one of the nation's oldest such programs and has served as a model for newcomer programs from coast to coast.

Recently, however, officials in the 65,000-student San Francisco district proposed disbanding the school and transferring its teachers to programs that would serve students at five existing high schools. The students would be divided among the schools largely by language.

Driving the district's plan are concerns about blocking immigrant students' access to the full array of high school experiences--from joining the marching band to taking high-level courses. Officials also worry about keeping newly arrived students segregated from their English-speaking, U.S.-born peers, a concern about the newcomer school concept echoed by some immigrant and civil rights advocates.

And some observers have questioned whether Newcomer High is still needed at a time when bilingual resources are readily available in San Francisco's regular high schools.

Segregation or Service?

But what has pushed the matter to the forefront in San Francisco is the urgent demand for classroom space. Superintendent Waldemar Rojas wants to turn Newcomer High into an elementary school in the coming fall to help ease the space crunch triggered largely by the state's ambitious effort to reduce class sizes in grades K-3.

Ultimately, the school board will decide Newcomer High's fate. But for now, parents, teachers, and students are in limbo.

Newcomer High's 400 students speak a total of 25 languages and dialects and hail from 47 countries. It is open to students who have lived in the United States for less than a year and have limited English skills. They may attend for no more than a year before moving to a mainstream school.

Teachers say the school offers individualized attention and a family environment for students who, in some cases, have little formal schooling or who have experienced trauma in their home countries. Gregory P. Collins, who has taught English as a second language at Newcomer High since 1989, recalled working with a 16-year-old who had barely attended school in his native Mexico and needed help writing the alphabet.

Another ESL teacher, J. Shelton Baxter, worked closely with a Bosnian student who had seen his father shot during the war in the former Yugoslavia. "We spend a fair amount of time counseling kids in an informal way," Mr. Baxter said. "We do a lot of listening."

He and other teachers fear that much of that individual attention may be lost if the program is scattered.

Limited Data

District officials say they intend to strengthen their program for recent immigrants, not abolish it. They argue that their plan shows how far the district has come since 1979, when most high schools were ill-equipped to deal with immigrant students' language and other needs.

"We want to enhance and update a program that has national recognition and visibility," said Rosa E. Apodaca, the assistant superintendent for bilingual education.

In recent years, questions have surfaced about whether schools like Newcomer High unnecessarily isolate immigrant students. ("Verdict Still Out," Nov. 27, 1996.)

The Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics recently compiled a national directory of newcomer programs for middle and high school students. Roughly two-thirds of the 60 programs profiled operate as schools within schools, not free-standing facilities like San Francisco's.

What complicates the issue is that few data exist on how well newcomer programs work, said Deborah J. Short, who coordinated the center's report.

End of an Era?

Because the matter came before the San Francisco board suddenly last month, right before the winter holidays, word of the proposal is just starting to circulate in the community, said Dan Kelly, the school board vice president.

Already, some critics have questioned whether the district is trying to woo affluent residents who live in the Pacific Heights neighborhood where Newcomer High sits. The elementary school Mr. Rojas has proposed for the neighborhood might be a dual-language immersion school. Such schools, where pupils who speak English as a native language and those who don't are mixed together and learn each other's language, are popular with parents.

For now, school board members appear divided on Newcomer High's future. Mr. Kelly said he sees no reason to change the school, and questions how receptive the regular high schools would be to its students. But Carlota del Portillo, the board president, supports the plan. In a system where nearly one-third of the students have limited English proficiency, Newcomer High's students would not be ostracized or "dumped willy-nilly," she said.

If the school does shut its doors, Ms. Short added, "it would definitely be the end of an era."

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