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The Wall Street Journal
Report Warns Influx Of Hispanics In South Creates School Crisis
By Miriam Jordan
9 December 2004
THE U.S. HISPANIC population is growing fastest in the South, and a report to be released today warns of a looming educational crisis that is breeding a new form of segregation.
The report, "The New Latino South and the Challenge to Public Education," is based on research in Arkansas, Georgia and North Carolina by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank at the University of Southern California. The increase in the immigrant populations of those states has far outpaced that of California and the national average in the past decade, as Latinos flocked to the South to fill jobs in low-skill industries.
In Georgia's Gwinnett County, outside Atlanta, the Latino population jumped 657% between 1990 and 2000; two-thirds of construction workers there are Hispanic, according to the report. In Benton, Ark., the Hispanic population soared 891% in a decade, and nearly three-quarters of all workers at local meat-packing plants are Latino.
The children of these immigrant workers, entering public schools in record numbers, are placing huge new demands on educators who have had little if any prior experience teaching non-English-speaking students and virtually no exposure to Latino culture.
"While communities generally acknowledge the economic value of Latino immigration, there has not been appropriate allocation of resources and commitment to immigrant education," the report says, and that lack of commitment is "generating . . . de facto educational segregation in the South."
Part of the report focuses on Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, renowned for its high-technology economy and prestigious universities. Few educators in the area's schools speak Spanish, and many aren't trained to cater to the special needs of immigrant students, the report says. In Durham, N.C., home to Duke University, there is just one English-as-a-second-language teacher for every 45 students who have limited English skills. In contrast, Los Angeles has one certified ESL teacher for every 15 students who require it, according to the report.
Another barrier, the report says, is the skewed perspective of some educators. Some school teachers and administrators regard Hispanic students as temporary residents, a notion that is used to justify not investing as much in them as in other students, the report says.
Among the consequences documented in the report is an elementary-school teacher who sent Spanish-speaking children to the back of the room with crayons to draw while she proceeded with a math lesson. The report also cites instances of schools denying enrollment to immigrant students, a violation of federal law.
Hispanic immigrants are bringing cultural norms that are unfamiliar and sometimes threatening to their new communities. Ethnic friction is emerging over jobs and control over school districts. "Hispanics are a new element in this centuries-old black-white dynamic," notes Andrew Wainer, lead researcher of the report.
In some school districts where blacks once were the majority, African-American board members are wary of the growing clout of Latino students, Mr. Wainer said. Meanwhile, groups that are mainly white, such as Georgians for Immigration Reduction, complain that illegal immigrants are forcing schools to divert attention to non-English speaking children at the expense of American children. "Teachers have to expend energy and resources teaching English to immigrant children," says Jimmy Herchek, a leader of the Georgia anti-illegal-immigrant group.
As might be expected, the various shortcomings in serving the booming Hispanic student force are resulting in poor academic achievement. Nationwide, Latino students have the highest high-school dropout rate of any ethnic group -- about 30%, compared with about 15% for the overall U.S. population. In North Carolina, 55.5% of Hispanic students who start ninth grade fail to graduate from high school.
"There is a danger of a new caste system forming in the south with Latinos at the bottom," says Mr. Wainer, who devoted two years to the Rivera institute's study. "It's segregation due to negligence."
Andrea Bazan, director of El Pueblo, an advocacy group in Raleigh, N.C., says: "We need leadership at the national and state levels to integrate Latino students in the classrooms."
Nonprofit organizations, school districts and universities are starting to mobilize in some communities. At the University of Georgia, the Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education was created last year to help train teachers and administrators to work more effectively with students whose knowledge of English is limited. Bilingual education laws are largely absent in the South.
Some school administrators independently have devised their own programs and searched for funding to support them. Such has been the case at Lilburn Elementary outside Atlanta, where from 1997 to 2004 the Hispanic student body jumped from 14% to 48% of total enrollment (currently 1,100).
In 2001, about 21% of all Lilburn Elementary fourth graders completed the year with either minimal or failing scores on a test that determines whether they can go to fifth grade. The school attributed the poor performance to the language gap.
"We were scrambling for solutions" at a time when schools and students are measured by test scores, says Jackie Beasley, the school principal. "I became a very good grant-proposal writer."
Mrs. Beasley raised money from government agencies and organizations, such as United Way. The funds enabled 20 teachers to get training on teaching children with limited English skills. Mrs. Beasley and her staff started classes for the neediest children, before and after school. The school also opened a parent center, which offers English, computer and civics classes for adults.
In 2004, all fourth graders tested well enough to enter fifth grade. The school's fourth-grade math scores were the third-highest in the county, out of more than 60 elementary schools.
"Nobody could have anticipated the amount and intensity of this wave of immigration," says Mrs. Beasley, the daughter of East European immigrants. "It's time for educators to get busy."