WHEN San Francisco superintendent Ramon C. Cortines graduated from Mission High School here in 1949, he was one of only four minority students in his class. Since then, Mission's enrollment has gone through several waves of dramatic change, reflecting the ethnic diversity of the Golden Gate district. The school's enrollment first became predominantly black, then predominantly Hispanic, and today is 47 percent Asian.
Of the 63,000 students in the San Francisco schools, 84 percent are minorities, according to Linda F. Davis, deputy superintendent.
``What you're seeing in San Francisco is just at an accelerated pace,'' Ms. Davis says. ``San Francisco epitomizes the changing face of America. What we're grappling with now will eventually be facing the entire country.''
To accommodate the district's ethnic diversity, San Francisco has developed a system-wide multicultural curriculum. ``We don't just do the token one-day celebration on everything,'' says Carlos Arturo Garcia, principal of Horace Mann Academic Middle School. ``For a month, we study a particular ethnic group and use that as a thematic approach through the whole school.''
To help deal with the influx of immigrant children, San Francisco founded the Newcomer High School in 1979. It was the first program of its kind and has since been replicated by many cities with large immigrant populations. ``We are here to provide students with an orientation and smooth transition to comprehensive high school,'' says Joe Buenavista, principal of the school.
Any foreign-born student of high-school age who has less than eight years of formal schooling and a limited command of English is eligible to attend Newcomer High for at least one semester.
The school is located in a somewhat dilapidated, 1920s school building in Pacific Heights, an affluent residential area. Students come from 36 ethnic backgrounds and they fill the halls with the clamor of 22 different languages and dialects. Most teachers here speak at least two languages - and many speak four. Core subjects are taught bilingually and teachers use ``sheltered English,'' which involves body language and gestures, when necessary.
Haydee Santiago, a 14-year-old student from the Philippines, came to Newcomer last September. A small, shy girl, she had six years of school in the Philippines but says it was nothing like school in the United States. ``Here in America, the teacher cannot hit you,'' she says. If you don't pay attention in the Philippines, Haydee remembers with a grimace, teachers swat you with a bamboo stick.
Next year, Haydee will go to Mission High School, the school Cortines attended. ``I'm excited to go in regular school,'' she says in shaky English. ``I'm not so scared now.'' But she would rather stay at Newcomer High where many of the students and some teachers speak Filipino.
Zhanna Golodriga, another 14-year-old Newcomer student, moved from the Soviet Ukraine just over a year ago. ``When I first came to school in the United States,'' she says, ``I just could answer if someone asked me my name or age.'' Now, her English is quite good. Sporting a blue-jean jacket, she could easily pass for an American high-schooler. ``I learned a lot of English here,'' she says of Newcomer High, ``because the teachers speak slowly and they explain things. But in regular school I know teachers won't speak slowly just for me.''