Vancouver Schools Rise to the Challenge of Increased Immigration

With almost half its students from abroad, school district is lab for multicultural ed

On a classroom wall at Fraser Elementary School is a "list of rights" developed by children: It begins with "love, family, and friends," and moves on to food and freedom of religion, among other things.

Teacher Margaret Vis sees "an amazing overlap" between this list and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which she only showed the students after they made their list.

What is equally remarkable, perhaps, is that this class in Vancouver, British Columbia, is itself a virtual microcosm of the United Nations. Children of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Europe did this exercise as part of their "English as a Second Language" (ESL) curriculum.

Earlier this year, many of the 20 students in this class could barely say their names in English, Ms. Vis says. Now, as the school-year ends, they talk freely to one another in their second language.

To describe the Vancouver school district as cosmopolitan is an understatement. Fully 48 percent of its students fall into ESL programs. That number includes many youths who have moved into regular classes at their grade level, but who get extra support for English-language skills.

The district is midway into a giant lab experiment on how well a school system can educate so diverse a student body. Those with a native language other than English accounted for less than 20 percent of enrollment in 1986. The percentage since has soared, particularly in the years 1987-1991. The much-publicized influx from Hong Kong - as that city-state approaches absorption into China - is enormous, but it is only part of the story.

Meeting the children in Ms. Vis's classroom, one is hard-pressed to find two students from the same place, except for some brother-sister combinations. There is Narue Laifon from Tahiti, Angelica Gaspar from Mexico, and Dario Isic from Yugoslavia.

This is a big difference from some United States cities, which have large ESL populations that largely share Spanish as a native language.

In Vancouver, bilingual education - using both English and Cantonese, for example, in the same classroom - is not an option. That would leave out thousands who speak Punjabi or Vietnamese.

"Research from the States," with its Hispanic focus, "really isn't applicable," says Neil Horne, an assistant superintendent of the Vancouver district. He says research suggests that students learn English faster, in any event, in classrooms where the emphasis is on English.

That doesn't mean other languages aren't heard occasionally. Even though Vis herself speaks none of the languages native to her students, she sometimes encourages students who share a common background to explain things to each other.

Jason Hung, of Taiwan, sometimes helps his younger sister.

"We work a lot in pairs and in groups," Vis says. During this visit, the students break out math books and do problems on their own, asking for help from Vis when they need it.

The "list of rights" exercise is typical of the curriculum. "They're studying social studies and science the whole year," as well as math and art. English is a subject in its own right, but is also learned in the context of these other studies.

The students range in age from 9 to 13, each working at his or her grade level in subjects such as math. (Students younger than 9 are immersed immediately in regular classrooms.)

"I stand in awe of what they learn in one year," Vis says.

To get the ESL students interacting with the other students at the school, their classes mix with regular classes for certain activities, such as making a "button blanket" modeled on those made by the Native American tribes of this region.

While several of Vis's students will be integrated into regular classes this fall, some express trepidation at leaving the nurturing environment of the ESL classroom.

"I feel shy, and it's kind of hard, but not that hard," to think about the move to a class of 30, says Bryan Hoang, who came from Vietnam. "My sister will help me," he says referring to his older sister Lisa, who is in the class.

"I don't think there's enough support for children, once they leave the ESL class," Vis says. "That's a funding issue." Given public concern about taxes, it is unclear whether funding for ESL programs will even remain at current levels. In the school year just ended, the district received $840 more per ESL student than for other students.

Not everyone is a fan of Vancouver's ESL program. Gloria Sampson, a professor of education at Simon Fraser University, outside Vancouver, says the city should be integrating children into mainstream classes faster. She recommends just one semester of intensive focus on English language skills, and then special support for ESL students in regular classrooms afterward.

She says that some students who come into the ESL program with strong math skills, for example, may lose ground academically while they are in ESL, especially at the high school level.

Since students are only in classes for about five hours a day, important support also comes from families, who sometimes organize homework clubs at community centers, Vis says.

An important part of the district's work happens before a student is even put in the classroom.

When families arrive in the country, they go to the Oakridge Reception and Orientation Center, where students are interviewed in their native language to determine their educational background. The process has become much more sophisticated over the last decade, says center supervisor Catherine Eddy.

When children arrive in the classroom, "teachers have a much clearer idea of the strengths and weaknesses they are bringing. That no longer has to be discovered as you go along."

The district also supports teachers by making special training in language/content relationships available annually, even for non-ESL teachers, Ms. Eddy says.

Topping the district's priorities for ESL programs is getting more of the students into classes in or close to their home neighborhoods.

Though a large majority of schools in the district offer ESL, many students make long cross-town trips to school.

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