Newcomer center, gentle reception for high school immigrants

The building on Jackson and Webster looks beautiful. Its new robin's-egg blue paint job has transformed it from a gray, weather-streaked eyesore, almost in disuse, to a distinctive-looking edifice filled with this September's high-schoolers.

It's the Newcomer Center for immigrant students of high school age, one of the city's two locations for this type of newly established remedial education.

What has happened to the building outside may be symbolic of the San Francisco School District's plan - said to be the nation's first - for students who attended its opening classes last year. And that was to help newcomers acquire the skills for getting an American education.

This year that first class will be integrated into the city's regular high schools; and a new immigrant-student group will fill the classrooms in the city's ''preliterate'' program.

California school rolls carry some 75,000 immigrant and refugee students. Last year the San Francisco district enrolled 4,883 of this group - many with no reading or speaking knowledge of English. The district school board, recognizing a need for orderly integration of immigrant students into the system, began its Intake Program.

Every foreign student of any age newly enrolling within the district is processed through the single entry point. Here the 17-member multilingual staff evaluates educational backgrounds and English language fluency. Thus, students can be placed at proper levels in learning centers or in school classes. High-schoolers take written tests (math in their own langauge) to have their basic skills determined.

Although most San Francisco schools have bilingual subjects, many of the new immigrant students of high school age would experience difficulty even in these classes. It was to give a step up to this group that the school district two years ago installed the specialized program.

''Preliterate'' participants are those students with no high school credits and with minimal reading-writing-comprehension skills, many below the eighth-grade level. Some of these students have never been to school and have little awareness of classroom techniques, and one group of Cambodian Hmong students had no previous experience with written language.

''The newcomer student program,'' said one school administrator, ''is really a very necessary outgrowth of our multiracial mix in the San Francisco school system. In 1981, 46 percent of our entering students at all levels were from homes where English is not the first language. Out of some 18 ethnic groups represented in this figure, 37 percent of the students were from Chinese-American households, 26 percent from Spanish-speaking families, 12 percent Filipino (speaking Tagalog or other dialects) and 7 percent of the students were Vietnamese.''

Intake of immigrant-refugee students into the San Francisco school program is growing about 7 percent a year. Local educators expect the plan to expand not only its basic communicative-educational instruction but also to add vocational classes for the training of these students in job-market skills.

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