No Child Left Behind? Say it in Spanish
Dec. 16, 2007


Published: December 16, 2007

AS school enrollment for Hispanic children declines in New York City and in other urban areas around the metropolitan region, school districts in dozens of outlying suburbs are adding seats and bilingual programs to address a sharp increase in the number of Hispanic students whose parents are immigrants.

Four out of five school districts in the region have gained Hispanic students since 2000, according to enrollment figures compiled by the states. By last year, 478 of New Jersey�s 595 districts had bilingual programs, up 5 percent from the previous year.

�Immigrants are skipping over the urban experience, and that�s something that�s quite new,� said Nicholas V. Montalto, chairman of the board of directors of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, a group that works on behalf of immigrants. �Immigrant integration now is happening in the suburbs.�

On the front lines of that integration are suburban schools. Census data from 2006 show that the Hispanic population under 15 has grown by 17 percent in the 19 suburban counties closest to New York City, while the white population in that age group has fallen 10 percent.

�The suburban baby boom now is Hispanic,� said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. �At one time you had whites moving to Levittown, and now we�ve got Hispanic suburbanites helping to populate the schools and starting the family networks that had been missing for a while as the whites aged.

�Why is this occurring?� Mr. Frey said. �Some of it is parents looking for better schools, just like in past immigrant waves. But what really drives it is where the jobs are and where cheap housing is.�

An analysis of census data shows a steady growth in the number of Hispanic residents with school-age children in towns and suburbs, like the Town of Dover in Morris County, N.J., and the hamlets of Brentwood and Copiague on Long Island, and in hundreds of small municipalities in Westchester and New Jersey.

At the same time, enrollment of Hispanic students was on the decline in places like Jersey City and Camden, Bridgeport in Connecticut and Hempstead on Long Island, from 2000 to 2005, the census data shows.

Several predominantly white communities, like Mount Pleasant in Westchester, Plainedge on Long Island and Bethel in Connecticut, have seen school enrollment of Hispanic students whose parents are immigrants double in the last five years.

�It�s a population increase that we did not expect, and it just grows and grows,� said Alfred Lodovico, the superintendent in the Mount Pleasant Central School District, where the number of Hispanic students increased to 109 in 2005, from 52 in 2000.

The changing demographics is raising questions in some school districts about how to best meet the needs of young Hispanic children, in the classroom, and within the school community.

�These students have a different preparation and different cultural background,� said Miriam M. E. Garcia, the executive director of Adelante of Suffolk County, a social services agency that provides services to Hispanic residents in Suffolk. �The districts don�t know what to do with them.�

In Randolph, a township of almost 25,000 in the hills of Morris County in New Jersey, school officials and residents expect their public schools to score well in statewide rankings and for students to perform well on standardized tests. About five years ago, there was concern that one of the school�s four elementary schools, Fernbrook, was lagging far behind in the standings. �Our district is high performing,� said Christine Carey, president of the Randolph school board. �Out of the four elementary schools, Fernbrook was noticeably lower.�

The school, which has prekindergarten through fifth-grade classes, wasn�t doing so well on state tests, with passing rates in the 60s and 70s instead of the 90-plus numbers posted by the district�s other schools. Fernbrook seemed to be struggling to reach many new children of immigrants, especially Hispanics.

While the other three schools had seen little or no change in their mostly white enrollments, the number of Hispanic students at Fernbrook had doubled in five years, and there was concern that lower achievement had become chronic.

�The community was getting frustrated, and the idea taking root was that Randolph is great, but then you have Fernbrook,� said the principal, Deborah Grefe.

Two years ago, the district hired a superintendent, Max R. Riley, partly on the strength of his record improving the performance of minority students. Mr. Riley, who had previously led the school district in Lawrence, N.J., in Mercer County, where there is a significant Hispanic population, told the board it had to invest in Fernbrook to help get the results that school officials were seeking.

Last year, even though the district faced a $3 million budget shortfall, the board hired more teachers at Fernbrook, including one who spoke Spanish. While jobs were cut in the administrative office, Mrs. Grefe hired a literacy coach for teachers to show them some new strategies to help students who were behind in reading. Mrs. Grefe initiated evening programs in Spanish and urged parents to attend.

�What the school board has to buy is it costs more to educate some kids, and it�s going to cost more to educate immigrants,� Mr. Riley said. �Once you accept that, everything falls into place.�

With homeowners complaining about already high property taxes and many school districts struggling to close budget gaps, not all school districts are capable of providing the resources that Randolph concluded were necessary to help raise performance in those classrooms with children in need of extra services.

�There will be more resources that will be required for these students, and the fact is, in New Jersey especially, the community pays the lion�s share of the costs,� said Frank Belluscio, director of communications for the New Jersey School Boards Association. �This is going to strain the entire system, and there will have to be some hard choices.�

He said he hoped that state aid formulas, which the governor has proposed rewriting, would help funnel more money to districts facing increasing numbers of children of immigrants.

In some towns, the challenges that go along with the increase in enrollment may test the suburban education paradigm of small districts and high taxes.

�It will challenge people�s fundamental values about what they�re willing to invest in the school system,� said Chung-Hwa Hong, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella organization of immigrant-advocacy groups. �It�s one thing if it�s your kid, but if it�s not your kid, or kids that look like you, people don�t want to pay for it.�

LIKE many suburbs, Randolph�s identity is tied to the high performance of its schools. �If you ask anyone why they moved to Randolph, they would say because the education is very good and the athletic program is very good,� said Alfredo Z. Matos, 49, a school board member.

The perception of quality is closely associated with scores on tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law. That law has also forced schools to make sure that subgroups, like Hispanic students, do well. If not, the schools are publicly branded as failures.

And, as in most middle-class suburban communities, property values are closely tied to the perceptions and performance of the towns� public schools. �There is a lot of talk about property values,� Ms. Carey said. �Some people think that�s where your property value is, in the quality of the schools.�

Carmen Perez-Hogan, a consultant and former coordinator of the office of bilingual education in the New York State Department of Education, said the nexus of scores and property values can make immigration a flash point.

�If the district starts to feel that their scores are being affected, or the quality of the school is being affected, then residents worry whether the value of their property is being affected, and that plays a great role in whether there is a reaction to immigration,� she said.

When Mr. Riley arrived in Randolph two years ago and was asked to improve Fernbrook, he asked the school board president to give Fernbrook�s principal the support and freedom, in addition to more resources, to help raise scores. Besides the literacy coach and more outreach, class size in kindergarten and first and second grades was reduced and set at 15, while it was 22 at the other three elementary schools. Computer laboratories were cut at the other schools, but retained at Fernbrook. A full-time social worker was added, and the school�s reading specialist was made a full-time position; the other schools continued with part-timers.

�These kids come in with half the vocabulary of middle-class kids,� said Mrs. Grefe, the principal. �We have six different categories of kids in terms of vocabulary, and they each get different instruction.� The group with the lowest skills gets a half-hour every day with the reading specialist.

Mrs. Grefe speaks Spanish. That has helped with another problem that Mr. Riley, and other superintendents around the region, say they must solve: getting hard-working, culturally and linguistically isolated parents involved. Mrs. Grefe organized events and programs for parents at the school, including an evening called Noche Latina, and called every Spanish-speaking parent to attend.

�In Colombia, the school is supposed to teach you, and the parents don�t get involved,� said Gustavo Roman, 44, a maintenance supervisor for a Parsippany chemical company whose children attend the Randolph schools. �American people take it a little different. Here, the school is supposed to teach you, but the parents are supposed to help.�

Mr. Roman got a high school education in South America, but he works three jobs, 12 hours a day, six days a week. He bought a house in Randolph 10 years ago so his son could attend the schools. His daughter is in second grade, and his wife works only part time so she can be involved with the children�s schoolwork, he said.

Marisol Giraldo, a Colombian immigrant, moved to Randolph from Dover after a divorce five years ago, when her son was entering kindergarten. �They have many programs at the school to help you to be a good parent,� Ms. Giraldo said. She rents a $900 apartment near Fernbrook, and works as a human resources assistant in Parsippany. �It�s very hard because you have to work and at the same time be a parent, but they provide programs at Fernbrook for parents that work all day.�

Everyone involved said they believed Mrs. Grefe�s strategies were working. Test scores in third grade have increased steadily since 2004, and are now in the 90s. Fourth-grade tests are up in 2007, but they have been up and down since 2003. And the effects of reducing class sizes won�t be seen until the younger students take the third-grade tests starting this year.

�We have a way to go,� said Mr. Matos, who is serving his first term on the school board. Mr. Matos, an executive with an international company, is Puerto Rican, and lives in the Fernbrook area. �We have brought the grades up, but we have to continue to work. I just don�t want to lose our good reputation. It�s hard to go up, it�s easy to go down.�

For Mrs. Carey, the school board president, the victory so far is that there had not yet been political repercussions.

�We thought we�d hear questions like, �Why is Fernbrook getting lower class sizes and we�re losing our computer labs?�� she said. �We waited to hear the complaints, but there was no backlash.

�I think as long as the scores stay high, we won�t have any problems.�