MADRID — A sign printed in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese welcomes children to the Emilia Pardo Bazon elementary school. And in this working-class neighborhood of Madrid, the greeting is needed on a regular basis. Typically, one new student each week arrives at the school's door, from such countries as China, Morocco, and Ecuador.
Even if they have never been formally educated or don't speak a word of Spanish, these newcomers are placed in classrooms according to their age, and their teachers are left to cope. This school is not alone in its struggles. In the past two years, immigration has overwhelmed Spanish classrooms. As schools scramble to adapt, the debate about bilingual education is heating up, and education leaders are looking to the United States for some advice.
"The mechanism of education is not as developed here as in the United States," says Francisco Marcos Marin, a professor of linguistics at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, who moderated a panel of American and Spanish educators in October. The participants, from school districts in California that have large numbers of students from Asia and Latin America, were invited by the US Embassy in Madrid to share the successful models they have developed over the past 15 years.
According to the education department in Madrid, the population of immigrants in the system, now numbering between 25,000 and 35,000, has increased by about 40 percent each year since 1999.
Although Moroccan seasonal laborers have been coming to Spain for the past decade, the rise in immigration numbers can be partly explained by the fact that women and children have recently started to follow them. Elementary and high schools in Madrid enroll between 170 and 200 immigrant children each week, and the number is expected to keep growing.
During a visit this fall to Emilia Pardo Bazon, where 85 percent of the 220 students are recent immigrants, students' struggles were apparent.
Sandra, a 10-year-old Ecuadorian, had just arrived in Spain with her parents and sister a week before. Even though she grew up speaking Spanish, she had never been in a formal school setting. She sat quietly with three other students in their support class - an hour daily of Spanish spelling and grammar - tripping over words like hilo (thread) and cacahuate (peanut).
Her classmate Asisa, from Morocco, could not explain what she had just done in gym, even though she has been in Spain for three years.
"They come here, and they can't talk [in Spanish], they can't write," says Maria Teresa Fernandez, their teacher. "Some get lost in class. Some adapt fine. But it is hit or miss."
The school system was caught off-guard by the explosion of immigration in 1999, says Antonio Casanova, the general director of Madrid's education department. It cobbled together a plan to deal with the growing diversity - to help students like Sandra and Asisa learn Spanish while allowing them to integrate in the classroom. The goals are to add more support classes within school hours, train a new generation of teachers in Spanish as a second language, and create new programs to promote cultural diversity, Mr. Casanova says.
But education leaders are concerned that schools are not adapting quickly enough to the new social realities within their walls. "In political discourse, the plan is great; it's phenomenal," says Antonio Hueso, a social worker for the Association of Moroccan Immigrant Workers in Madrid. "The reality is a scholastic failure, and all of these children could lose their future opportunities."
According to a recent study produced by the Universidad Complutense, more than half of the immigrants in Madrid's school system last year exhibited an inability to learn or to integrate socially, mostly due to language and education deficiencies, spotty attendance records, and a dearth of trained teachers.
Language instruction for nonnative Spanish speakers is generally considered the most controversial issue facing education. While the current proposal favors integration, many educators say that students need to be separated and taught mathematics or biology in their native languages until they speak Spanish fluently. For now, there is no clear plan being implemented across the system.
At Emilia Pardo Bazon, students receive five hours of Spanish instruction a week. In other schools, teachers offer classes outside of school hours or none at all. "Students are thrown into biology and math classes and expected to learn through osmosis," Professor Marin says.
Mariano Caballero, who teaches history at the high school Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, says that when new immigrants arrive without language skills, he tries to have them relocated because Spanish language classes are not offered there.
"Otherwise, students get lost in the system," he says. "They take my class without understanding anything." By law, the system provides 16 hours of Spanish instruction for high school students, but there are not teachers in every school to meet that requirement, he says.
Some educators, like Mr. Caballero, believe that schools have not been given proper resources because of hostile attitudes surrounding immigration.
Mr. Hueso says it is not uncommon for school principals - particularly in private schools - to block immigrants from enrolling by claiming there is not enough space.
When they do come in, these students often end up isolated. "Moroccan children cluster together because they know the same language, eat the same food," says Hueso, "and the schools end up reproducing the segregated society that exists outside."
The education department of Madrid has tried to combat discrimination by creating cultural-awareness programs, facilitated by various nongovernmental organizations.
The Antonio Moreno Rosales elementary school in Lavapies, another immigrant neighborhood of Madrid, seeks to foster cultural integration by celebrating a range of holidays or offering foods from different countries. Habiba Ben Rabah, for instance, teaches Arabic and Moroccan culture and decorates her classroom with Arabic proverbs and pictures of mosques. Her class is full of students from all over the world, predominantly Northern Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.
Because it is difficult to direct government money in Spain toward creating bilingual education or other programs for immigrant children, educators have been looking for effective grass-roots models.
At the recent US Embassy meeting, panelist Pamela Dungy introduced a program that California's Fresno Unified School District created for the Khmer population. Like some Moroccan students in Spain, the Khmer students had been exhibiting learning and behavioral problems, so the district created a language- and cultural-immersion program to help them reestablish their roots. "It started as a grass-roots effort and turned around their dysfunctional behavior completely," Ms. Dungy says.
But right now in Spain, programs with that degree of development and follow-through don't exist, says Mr. el-Madkouri, leaving many social-service and religious organizations to fill the void. At one school, for example, a group of parents organized afternoon Arabic classes. And a nonprofit group offers Saturday classes in Arabic for children of mixed marriages.
After all, says Emilio Casas, the priest in Madrid who runs the program, "If there is a large group of people uneducated, isolated, or distant, then what is going to happen to society?"