Immigrants Flood New York City Schools

A ROARING rendition of "America the Beautiful" spills into the hall outside Public School 19's auditorium in Corona, N.Y.

Inside, more than 200 fifth-graders - almost all of them children of immigrants - fill the large room to capacity. A music teacher stands at the front of the room simultaneously playing the piano, directing, and craning her neck in an impossible attempt to see all of her young chanters.

Before the group moves on to "God Bless America," school principal Barbara Miles gets the students' attention. "What a big difference today," she says. "You sounded wonderful. By June 23, you'll be spectacular."

June 23 is graduation day for these youngsters. They'll move on to intermediate schools such as I.S. 73, which has 2,500 students - "probably rendering it the largest intermediate school in the world," says John Falco, deputy superintendent of District 24 in the borough of Queens, one of the most chronically overcrowded districts in the massive New York system.

Even after a 300-seat addition to I.S. 73, the school is still short 400 seats. "That's how serious a situation it is," Mr. Falco says.

New York City public schools are exploding at the seams. A wave of new immigrants has pushed the system-wide student population to just under 1 million. During the past three years, some 120,000 immigrants from 167 countries have enrolled in the city's schools. (See story at left.)

"While these are certainly not the kinds of numbers that people saw in various times of New York history, compared to the '60s and '70s the number of people coming into the system is huge," says Philip Kasinitz, a professor of sociology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and author of "Caribbean New York."

"What it translates into is schools without gymnasiums because they have to be used as classrooms," Falco says. "Any room that is slightly oversized becomes a double classroom. One school has a triple classroom."

P.S. 19, which occupies a five-story building erected in 1923, has 2,040 students. "And we get new admissions every day," Dr. Miles says. A new wing houses the second grade, but the building is still being used at 140 percent of its capacity.

"Our No. 1 problem is space," Falco says. But a serious language problem ranks a close second. More than 83 languages are spoken by the 27,000 students in District 24. At P.S. 19 alone, 27 languages are spoken. One-third of the students are not fluent in English.

As in the rest of the school system, the largest percentage of immigrant students at P.S. 19 are from the Dominican Republic.

After Spanish, the most commonly spoken languages at the school are Chinese, Urdu, and Bengali. Every notice is sent home in both Spanish and English, even report cards. Translators are present at all parent-teacher conferences.

Despite these new challenges and the crowded conditions, "we look at it as a positive," Miles says of the immigrant influx. "We really have to work with what we have."

Many New Yorkers view the new immigrants as an invigorating force for a public school system that lost scores of students in recent decades to a middle-class exodus from the city.

"The rhetoric is that it's a great thing," says Emanuel Tobier, a New York University professor of economics and planning. "But with the downturn in the city's economy and cutbacks in the availability of funds, [the school system] is really going to be hard-pressed to deal with this complicated situation."

Despite the successful assimilation of immigrants during the early part of this century, the public schools aren't guaranteed to succeed this time around.

"1990 is not 1920 for a whole variety of reasons," says Professor Kasinitz. "People forget how bad the last immigration was. They forget that at the time that the New York public schools were producing all those Nobel Prize winners and those future great novelists, there was an enormously high dropout rate."

Although graduating from high school didn't matter much in that era, today's labor force requires a more educated worker. "It was a totally different world," Professor Tobier says. "New York was a factory city at the turn of the century. Now it's a white-collar town."

Today's students can't leave school at age 14 or 15 and take a secure factory job, Tobier says. That means the schools are under greater pressure to provide a broader and stronger education.

Falco acknowledges that the quality of education is suffering in his district. "It has to be," he says. "If you're in an open classroom that is cramped, you can't help but be distracted. There's not a person among us that can't wait to get out of a crowded elevator."

District 24 is ranked near the middle in academic achievement among New York public schools. "We would probably be in the top 10 if we didn't have the overcrowded conditions," Falco says.

Some new arrivals have never attended school in their native countries. "We have some students who are not literate in English or their native tongue," Miles says. But "you would be surprised at how quickly the children assimilate," she says. In an effort to help immigrant families, English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes are offered to parents at many schools.

At P.S. 19, four ESL classes are held in the school cafeteria during the day. Night courses are held twice a week, and about 20 parents participate in an after-school program that offers English instruction to parents while students get help with homework.

Howard Korn, a fifth-grade teacher who has taught at P.S. 19 for 16 years, has seen the school grow and evolve. "Students come and go a lot so that creates a lot of continuity problems," he says.

Through the years, Mr. Korn has had to learn new strategies for teaching immigrant students who speak little or no English. "When you have students come into your class with no English, you have to make provisions for them," he says. "I try to pair up kids who speak the same language so they can help each other." When a new student speaks a language other than those spoken by classmates, Korn resorts to sign language.

Although teachers and principals are accustomed to making do with what they have, Korn does make a small plea when asked what would most help him accomplish his work. "Having materials at my disposal," he says. "If I had a series of books and flash cards to use, it would really help. I don't have anything. When a new student who doesn't speak English comes in, I have to scrounge around. If every teacher had a little kit at their disposal, it would really help."

Miles also mentions a need for materials. "We use a lot of paper," she points out. "Whenever we send out a notice, that's 2,000 sheets at a time."

Despite such a drain on resources, Miles is enthusiastic about the influx of new, diverse faces into New York schools.

"It's an invaluable experience for our children to meet and get to know people from different backgrounds. Here's a perfect place for them to learn how to get along with each other," she says. "When these children get older, they will be working with people of many different ethnic groups. Why not learn in elementary school about the similarities and basic goodness of all people?" Next week: New York City's fast-track effort to design and build schools of the future for its booming student population.

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