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The earlier schools get newcomers, the better
San Antonio Express-News
By Lucy Hood
12:00 AM

San Antonio no longer is the immigrant destination it once was. But it still attracts a large number of newcomers from abroad, and local schools - like the rest of the state and the nation - often struggle to meet their needs.

Immigrant Education
Express-News Education Writer Lucy Hood spent five months researching and reporting the impact of booming immigrant enrollments on American schools. This series was partially underwritten by the Carnegie Corp., which recently published Hood's study, "Immigrant Students, Urban High Schools: The Challenge Continues."

Local educators say elementary schools tend to do a good job. They typically have strong bilingual education programs in place, and some go beyond the norm with innovative dual-language programs that all but guarantee student success.

"If we get all immigrant students when they're in 'kinder,' we'll do wonders," said Nora Harris, director of bilingual education for the Harlandale School District. "But that's not the way things happen."

Middle schools and high schools are more problematic.

"We have not done a very good job at the secondary level," said Robert Milk, director of bicultural and bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

"We see a lack of focus on the kind of structures, the kinds of programs you would have to have at the secondary level in order for an immigrant child to be successful over a three-, four-, five-year period," he said.

It's a dilemma that plagues secondary schools nationwide. Teachers tend to be specialists in a given subject. They teach math, science, English, history, etc., but very few know how to present their teaching to those who don't speak English.

Immigrant students typically are put into English as a Second Language classes and left to fend for themselves in the rest of their classes.

There may be additional efforts to help them out, like special tutoring sessions, the creation of newcomer centers or a select number of classes that combine a given subject - science, for example - with ESL instruction.

But, Milk said: "I don't think there's a widespread understanding of the kind of response that's needed at the secondary level."

The number of immigrants coming to San Antonio in recent years pales in comparison to other places, such as Dallas and Houston, which were the state's top immigrant destinations in the 1990s.

San Antonio's immigrant population remained relatively stable, going from 9.4 percent in 1990 to 11.7 percent in 2000. Though the growth rate was small, it includes a more diverse group of newcomers. Asian-born residents and those of Arab ancestry nearly doubled in the 1990s.

In contrast to San Antonio, the immigrant population grew from 17.8 percent to 26 percent in Houston, and from 12.5 percent to 24 percent in Dallas.

Char Miller, chairman of Trinity University's history department, said the city's stability is a relatively new phenomenon.

"We've had various points of tremendous growth in terms of immigration," he said, including the post-World War II era through the 1970s.

Today, immigrants are more inclined to bypass the Alamo City on their way to other places, where low-wage jobs are more plentiful.

But the city still has its share of immigrant youths, and educators say their needs can't be ignored.

In Harlandale, Harris is pinning her hopes on the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. It provides grants for programs aimed at students who are limited English proficient (or LEP for short), and it requires states to measure their academic progress.

Harris has applied for grants to make extensive changes at the middle and high school level, including one proposal to train all high school teachers how to teach those who don't speak English.

"We are leaving some children behind," she said, "and we cannot do that."

She credits the federal law with forcing school administrators to focus on immigrant students.

"It's never been an issue of them not wanting to do it," she said, but there have been other priorities.

"You always take pasitos (little steps)," she said. "Three steps forward, two back, but we're making a little progress here."

Several local districts have embarked on similar efforts. Judson, for example, received $30,000 last year and expects to receive another $54,000 this year to enhance programs for English-language learners. Among other things, the district is also targeting secondary teachers, hoping all of them will receive training in English as a second language.

Synthia Avila, director of bilingual education for Judson, says the No Child Left Behind Act is making a difference.

"Now it's holding everybody accountable," she said. "Now other people are noticing that we have to do something for our LEP kids."