Thursday, June 2, 2005

Rising immigration and the “baby boom echo” have boosted U.S. school enrollment to more than 49 million, according to two federal reports issued yesterday.

As immigrants continue pouring into the country, communities in the South and West will feel the brunt of increased enrollment and the need to expand schools or build new ones, according to reports from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Education.

Also, the surge of immigrant children has led to a steady increase in the number of students who speak a foreign language at home, and if they speak English at all, they do so “with difficulty,” according to a report titled “The Condition of Education 2005” from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The growing number of schoolchildren from households that don’t speak English has a significant bearing on student achievement, according to report statistics.

There is no analysis in the Education Department report showing a direct correlation between immigrant children’s low English proficiency and the success of schools in meeting the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act. But the report’s statistics show Hispanic children trailing other minorities in reading and math progress.

“The number who spoke a language other than English at home and who spoke English with difficulty increased by 124 percent” from 1979 to 2003, the report says.

The report shows 9 percent, or 3.7 million, of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in 1979 spoke a foreign language at home, and more than a third of them “spoke English with difficulty.”

But by 2001, the number of immigrant children who did not speak English at home had grown to 19 percent of the national school population, or 9 million students — of whom 2.4 million spoke English with difficulty.

“A lot of time in public schools, children who do not speak English are being put in special education, but it is not because they have any learning disability or belong in special education,” said Xiaochin Yan, an education-policy fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, Calif.

“It is because they don’t speak English at home and receive needed special attention at school to learn to speak English,” she said. California public schools “are not focused on English, but bilingual education, which has failed because it does not stress English,” she said.

Miss Yan, a native of China who is fluent in English, said she works with “high-performing” charter schools that have high-achieving students who speak foreign languages at home. “In order to get high achievement, they had to concentrate on teaching the children to read English,” she said.

In Western states, 31 percent of all school-age children spoke a language other than English at home in 2003, compared with 19 percent in the Northeast, 16 percent in the Midwest and 10 percent in the South, according to the NCES report.

The reports do not address the issue of illegal aliens, but do say legal immigrants are more likely to speak English. “School-age children who were not U.S. citizens were more likely than U.S.-born and naturalized citizens to speak a language other than English at home, and naturalized citizens were more likely than U.S.-born children to do so,” the NCES report said.

“Five percent of both black and white school-age children spoke a language other than English at home, compared with 19 percent of American Indians, 65 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 68 percent of Hispanic children.”

More than one-fifth of Hispanic children spoke English with difficulty, as did 18 percent of Asians, according to the report.

The immigrant population tripled from 1970 to 2000, according to the report, and that increase will continue over the next several years until enrollment nationwide tops 50 million by 2007.

A 25 percent increase in the number of annual U.S. births since the mid-1970s, a trend that peaked in 1990, is the other major cause of significant enrollment increases that started hitting nursery schools in 1992, according to the reports.

However, as children of immigrants continue to swell the student population, the number of children of baby boomers is expected to decline from this fall through 2010, owing to a small drop in annual births from 1990 to 1997, according to the Census Bureau report.

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