THE growing number of immigrant families in America is creating a new set of educational needs in school districts across the country. So far, the needs have been invisible because large numbers of Asian, Hispanic, and Caribbean children in schools are a relatively new phenomenon. But their numbers are increasing - far ahead of the number of qualified bilingual teachers. In California, for example, more than one in three public school students is a ``limited English speaker,'' according to state estimates. By 1990, the shortfall of bilingual teachers in the state is expected to exceed 11,000.
Other states - Texas, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts - face similar dilemmas.
The new immigration law signed by President Reagan last month, granting amnesty and legal status to illegal aliens who can prove residence in the United States since 1982, will also bring more children to local schools, experts say - despite the fact that, based on a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, they can already legally attend. Florida, with 70,000 Haitian illegals - 30,000 in Miami - will be affected. So will states along the Mexican-US border.
These new populations, experts say, present a complex of problems different from those encountered by their European counterparts 50 years ago: The Cambodians, Central Americans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Haitians, are refugees from the third world. With the exception of Spanish populations, these groups do not have a developed subculture in which to seek refuge here. Nor are there endless empty spaces to settle in high-tech corporate America. The language and cultural mores of these groups are pronouncedly different. As a bilingual expert with the Massachusetts Department of Education noted, ``The Chinese have been here for 100 years, and they still maintain a separate culture.
``The parents of the new immigrants are at sea here. They have no idea about American public schools. The public schools have really no idea about them. How many Cambodian-English teachers are there?''
This past fall, the Ford Foundation sponsored hearings in five major American cities - Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and most recently in Boston - on just this issue.
Two central questions emerged from these hearings. The first has to do with teaching: Who will do it? Who will prepare new bilingual and bicultural teachers? And who will pay for all this at a time when state and local school budgets are already strained by education reform costs?
The second question, posed by new Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Harold Raynolds, is equally large: Since new immigrant populations are being thrust onto local communities as a result of ``open door'' national policies dating from the Carter through the Reagan administrations, what is the appropriate federal role in handling the resultant needs? ``It's up to the national Congress, having passed the laws, to do something about it,'' Mr. Raynolds said, adding that that ``apparent failure to deal with the consequences'' of immigration policies is ``irresponsible,'' since they cause ``enormous social problems.''
Along with raising political and logistical issues, the hearings presented testimony on actual cases - challenges as well as ``bright spots.''
Living conditions for most of these families are still below normal. Six families living in an apartment is not unknown for any of the new populations. The dropout rate and the number of teen pregnancies are high.
Other ethnic or minority populations often resent the move of new immigrants into their traditional ``gateway'' (to the socioeconomic mainstream) communities. In Boston English, a racially mixed high school, some blacks were ``lording over'' the Laotians, who are physically smaller. However, the Laotians banded togther, put up stiff resistance, and are now respected, according to a school official.
The public schools are something of a wilderness for the new groups. Older children are often misassigned to grades and classes. Language is a constant barrier. Parents usually can't help with homework - or tell if their children are correctly placed.
Much has been made in the press about the success rate of Vietnamese and Cambodian children. But it's not generally reported that these are ``first wave'' immigrants - the children of the urban elite. Second and third wave Asians, particularly Cambodian rural populations fleeing Pol Pot, are not as academically adept.
One area of special trouble is the ethos or expectations of immigrant parents. These often clash with typical public school standards. Many Haitians in Miami, for example, feel that their children need more discipline - even corporal punishment - in schools.
Comments also indicated that Latin parents, particularly males, are often suspicious of schools - and may feel uncomfortable about children, especially females, being away from home, or learning too much.
In Cambodia, schools are closely tied to the Buddhist church, and teachers and administrators are treated with reverence, and not questioned. Such an approach is unwise in the West, experts said.
There are success stories. Inspired leadership, such as that provided by William Waxman at Garfield Elementary in Revere, Mass., has made the school - which went from 90 percent Anglo to 45 percent Cambodian in a single year - the pride of local communities. ``We decided before the group came,'' said Mr. Waxman, ``that we were going to make them feel at home.'' Waxman held meetings every week for six months before the Cambodians arrived in order to build a sense of expectancy and excitement. He hired eight Cambodian-English teachers.
Garfield is noted for is its ``buddy system'' - every Cambodian child pairs up with a Western child. The system has worked ``miraculously well,'' say observers. The children go everywhere in pairs. The spirit in the school is high.