Worlds better

In a first-grade classroom at PS 62 in Queens, Tatyana Ahmed, an American-born black student, sits on the floor sharing a book with recent Indian immigrant Jyot Singh. Tatyana glides her finger slowly along a page of "Who Eats Leaves?" as she helps Jyot spell out "koala."

The little girls bend their heads companionably over the book, but a mere glance indicates a gap much wider than their levels of English comprehension. Tatyana, sitting cross-legged in sneakers and jeans, looks every inch the contemporary American urbanite. Jyot, by contrast, wears a red, patterned dress tucked carefully over lacy tights and patent-leather shoes. She gazes cautiously at Tatyana from under a pair of dark eyelashes.

It is left to their teacher, Christine Viola, only a few years out of college herself, to understand the differences between these children and the ways in which they will learn.

It's an enormous challenge, but ultimately, educators hope that teachers like Ms. Viola will meet the needs of immigrant students in ways that benefit peers like Tatyana as well.

The first step, a growing number of advocates say, is a tighter focus on how to absorb burgeoning numbers of immigrant children into schools in the United States.

Since the late 1990s, nearly 900,000 immigrants have entered the US annually, up from 640,000 in the late '80s.

"This has been the largest wave of immigration in the history of this country," says Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of the Harvard Immigration Project in Cambridge, Mass. "Schools everywhere from Queens to San Francisco are in some way facing this."

Although federal funding is available to schools with immigrant students, it hasn't increased as immigration has grown.

Certainly there have been state and local efforts. Some cities, such as Chicago, have experimented with gateway programs that newly arrived students can attend until they're ready to join the mainstream, or special schools dedicated to children from immigrant families.

But many individual schools still feel a lack of official support, especially in neighborhoods where demographics have changed dramatically in recent years.

Richmond Hill - the solidly blue-collar corner of Queens served by PS 62 - was once populated largely by Irish- and Italian-American families. Today, the children streaming toward the squat red-brick schoolhouse are more likely to be Indian and Caribbean.

In the classroom, this has translated into an influx of kids who speak no English, know little of US culture and customs, and - in some cases - have never even attended school before. Simply becoming accustomed to cold weather, tall buildings, and a freewheeling urban culture can be an overwhelming learning experience in itself.

America's schools have long served as a receiving point for children from foreign shores. But the last great wave of immigration occurred early last century, and was overwhelmingly European-based.

Today's immigrants are more often from Asia or South America, and most come from diverse parts of the developing world; teachers can no longer count on any kind of common cultural base as a starting point.

"What I was hearing from teachers was that they were now working much harder but accomplishing less," says PS 62 principal Stephen Kramer. The fatigue and frustration of the faculty, he says, were damaging school morale.

Pushed toward 'best practices'

While many schools only feel a slight impact from immigration, others like PS 62 are overwhelmed. In 1998-99, 8.5 percent of students in New York City schools were new immigrants, but at PS 62 that figure stood at 17 percent. The teachers were already operating in a1,100-student school where the building is filled to 130 percent of capacity and a class size of 32 is the norm.

In an effort to help the struggling teachers, Mr. Kramer called in an outside expert from New York's Bank Street College of Education to suggest changes in teaching methods and curriculum to better support a student population with limited English skills.

Now, six years later, Kramer and others at PS 62 say the changes have not only helped immigrant children, but seem to have strengthened learning throughout the school.

Schools in other parts of the country have seen similar developments. "Many of the things that you would do to help students with limited English simply fall under the heading of best practices," says Mike McLeod, head of the English as a Second Language department at Pacific Middle School in Des Moines, Wash. - a school that has seen waves of Mexican, Bosnian, and Somalian immigrants.

At PS 62, one of the first changes was to make literacy - and the love of reading - an absolute priority.

Classrooms were supplied with rich and appealing children's books aimed at a range of ability levels. Additional reading teachers came in as well, so the student-teacher ratio in the younger classes would drop to about 6 to 1 during reading time.

Teachers were encouraged to rethink the ways students might relate to texts. Singing, movement, and art became bridges to the written word.

Group work allowed students with stronger English skills to help language learners, and created bonds across different ethnic groups. Yet, at the same time, individual projects - like allowing students to write their own books - permitted each student to work at a different pace.

None of these changes came easily. Teachers had to be both more structured and more flexible, and extra spending on reading teachers and materials meant sacrifices in other areas.

But the result, say some PS 62 teachers, has been a better school overall.

"I've seen a huge improvement," says Ruth LaCascia, a teacher here since 1982. "The kids who need to learn English learn faster, and they all love reading in a way they didn't used to.... I have to tell them, 'Put the book away,' and even then they try to sneak it open again," she says.

In the fourth grade, writing is emphasized as well. But everything starts with books. "The kids don't just read anymore," says project-arts teacher Sonia Rudolph. They look at text, pictures, language - they tear a book apart. They are required to really think and respond."

Many schools can't keep pace

These encouraging snapshots, however, don't mean that most schools have successfully learned to cope with larger numbers of immigrant students.

"These are both the best and the worst of times for immigrant children in this country," says Professor Suarez-Orozco. "For some immigrant children, the passage through US schools is an overwhelmingly positive experience. But for many it is not."

Many school districts, he says, have learned to work effectively with highly motivated immigrant children, but most still struggle to help those who have greater needs or come from extremely poor backgrounds.

At PS 62, third-grade teacher Susan Hoffman says she is learning to adapt to the perspective of students who may never have lived in a house with doors and windows before they came to the US. Most learn English quickly, she says, glancing around her cheerful but crowded classroom, but many continue to lack background knowledge that their peers naturally acquire. "They didn't go to preschool, they don't have play dates, they've never seen snow or had a Thanksgiving dinner," she says, and thus references in texts and classroom lessons may pass them by.

In addition, their parents need extra attention. Ms. Rudolph once held a math workshop for parents, because many longed to help with homework.

Enriched by new perspectives

But when properly dealt with, insist some teachers and administrators, these students are an asset rather than a burden to a school.

At Pacific Middle School - where 40 nations' flags now fly in the cafeteria - those with wanderlust have no need to travel, jokes Mr. McLeod. "You can see the world right here."

Learning to accommodate the new population was a struggle, but now, he says, discussions of world events have a new depth. "For our kids, when things happen in Somalia, that's not just some place on the globe," he says.

Mrs. Hoffman agrees. In her third-grade classroom, where two boys wear turbans and only 1 in 30 children is not from an immigrant family, she finds the pluses often outweigh the minuses.

When she discussed Thanksgiving, she found that most didn't know what the holiday meal traditionally consisted of, but when it came to discussing the Pilgrims, her students were able to understand first-hand why so many foreigners arrive on US shores, and they told moving tales of the freedoms their parents sought in choosing to live here.

Her classroom is also enriched when parents visit to explain holidays like Diwali, a Hindu festival of lights.

There is an even deeper gift that immigrant children can offer schools. Research suggests that they have an energy and optimism sometimes lacking in their US counterparts. "Ask immigrant children about school and they are likely to tell you, 'School is great, school is my future, school is my life,' " Suarez-Orozco says. "Nonimmigrant children are more apt to say, 'School is boring.' "

After nine years of working in classrooms almost entirely filled with immigrant children, Hoffman says she simply sees them as individuals. But the one difference she can never overlook is the fact that to succeed in school they must try harder than children brought up in mainstream US culture. "And because they have to work harder," she says, "it means we are all working harder, too."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

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