- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — The city’s school system has the highest percentage of students in Virginia public schools speaking English as a second language, after a decade of immigrant migration.

Besides trying to resolving such major issues as whether to test students in English or their native language, school administrators are also dealing with the cultural problems that come with having so many immigrant students.

For example, teacher Antero Rodriguez must tell Central American students that they cannot kiss their teachers at the classroom door as they did back home. And he must also tell immigrant parents they cannot simply walk into a classroom to hug and kiss their children.

“In their native land, they could go anytime they want just to say hello,” Mr. Rodriguez said of the Uruguayan natives.

Mr. Rodriguez started working with at-risk students seven years ago and now spends significant time at the city’s elementary schools acquainting parents with how the more formal American institution works.

In 1992, city schools had 93 students who spoke English as a second language.

Last year, they had 1,195 English as a Second Language (ESL) students, nearly a third of about 4,000 enrolled, according to figures from Virginia’s Department of Education.

Across the state, the number of ESL students tripled from 16,624 in 1992 to 49,840 last year, according to the department.

Other areas with high percentages of ESL students include Arlington, Alexandria, Manassas, Manassas Park, Fairfax, Winchester, and Prince William and Accomack counties.

Spanish is the most common native language, driven largely by an influx of children of Central American immigrant workers who have flocked to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County area for agricultural jobs, especially those in the poultry industry.

From 1990 to 2000, the number of foreign-born residents in the city’s population increased from 2.4 percent to 9.2 percent, according to the U.S. census.

During that time, the percentage of residents who spoke a language other than English at home rose from 5 percent to 14 percent.

In addition to Latinos, Stone Spring Elementary School enrolls Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Kurds, Pakistanis and Ukrainians.

The signs that mark each school’s administrative office are written in several other languages.

For the near future, testing requirements will be a major concern.

The Virginia Board of Education has decided to accept testing requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind education law, which requires students with limited English who have lived in the country for a year to take the SOL test when their grade level requires it.

Harrisonburg School Board members say the requirement will hurt districts such as theirs and have asked the board to pass a resolution asking the Virginia School Boards Association to push for the administration of Standards of Learning tests in students’ native languages.

The state board had already discussed the option informally but found it too costly, said Department of Education spokeswoman Julie Grimes.

Though the federal law requires all ESL students to be tested regardless of when they entered the United States, their scores will not count in their first year here.

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