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Immigrants said to present challenge, opportunity for California

STANFORD -- During each five-hour period from now to the year 2000, the population of California will increase by 435 people.

Of those, 285 will be newborn babies, 105 will be immigrants (50 from Mexico, 20 from Central and South America, 20 from Asia and the remaining 15 from around the globe), and 45 will move from another state.

To accommodate the increase, during each five-hour period space for three additional classrooms and the teachers to staff those classrooms also must be found.

James Fulton, manager of the California Department of Education's educational demographics unit, offered those projections Thursday, June 27, at a five-hour seminar on immigrant children in California schools. The seminar was organized by the Stanford University School of Education.

Immigrant children will represent a significant proportion of the next generation of school children, said Ruben Rumbaut, professor of sociology at San Diego State University.

In 1981, 376,794 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade in California public schools were classified as "limited English proficient." By 1989, that number had risen to 742,559 or 16 percent of the total student population. The students spoke more than 100 different primary languages, with the largest number (553,498 or 74.5 percent) listing Spanish as their primary home language.

Unless substantial changes are made, California will be unable to cope with educating this increasing and increasingly diverse population, said Michael Kirst, professor in the Stanford School of Education.

With population growth at 4 percent a year and inflation at 5 percent, the state government has to spend 9 percent more each year just to keep the school system even, let alone make any improvements in quality, Kirst said.

Under the current tax system, it is impossible for the state to keep up with demand in education, he said.

"Unless we do something dramatic about our fiscal underpinnings, we will continue to lose ground," he said.

The way out of this dilemma, Kirst said, lies in a return to local financing, with citizens able, by a majority vote, to increase their property taxes on an equalized basis.

Giving a view "from the trenches" was Robert Amparan, principal of San Diego High School, which has a large number of immigrants among its student population. After describing programs San Diego High is able to offer the immigrants, including science and math classes taught in Spanish, Amparan said he often feels the school has reached a "point of saturation," overwhelmed by the sheer number of students who need help.

For example, he said, when 29 youngsters a day need medical attention, it simply is not possible for the school nurse to make that many referrals.

In the last two years, he said, 21 teachers have left the school, "and although they don't say so, I think many of them feel there is just too much pressure. They can earn the same amount of money at another school with fewer problems."

However, several of the participants stressed that immigrant children bring strengths as well as challenges to American society.

In a 1986 study of San Diego high school students, Rumbaut found that many immigrant groups earned higher grade point averages than white Anglos. The english-speaking whites, with an average grade point average of 2.24, were outscored by East Asians (Chinese, Japanese and Korean), southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Hmong, Cambodian and Lao) and Filipinos. In these groups, even among those listed as "limited English proficient" all--except Lao and Filipino students-- had higher grade averages than the white Anglo students.

The data systematically shows that Americanization often means lowered educational attainment, Rumbaut said.

Sanford Dornbusch, Stanford professor of human biology and sociology, said his research also has found that the longer immigrant groups are in America, the worse they do in school. That, he said, supports the view that immigrants should be seen as people with something to contribute to American society.

"They are doing something right," he said.

Laurie Olson of California Tomorrow expressed concern that special programs and classes to meet the needs of students who are not yet fluent in English have resulted in increased patterns of separation for those students.

"Given the very long history in this country in which segregation of minority groups has meant inferior education, I have some concerns about this trend," Olson said. California Tomorrow is a non-profit, non-partisan organzation that conducts policy research and engages in advocacy.


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