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THE MELTING POT : Schools Reeling From Influx of Armenians

April 28, 1988|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

The sentence on the blackboard in the Horace Mann Elementary School first-grade classroom has an immediacy that "see Dick run" lacks.

"We will have Armenian books in the library soon," harried teacher Matilda Mardirussian has written--in Armenian and English--for her class of about 30 eager children newly arrived from Soviet Armenia. With an average of four Armenian emigres enrolling in the school each week, educators say they cannot order books fast enough.

Board members, administrators and teachers throughout Glendale Unified School District are bracing for the arrival of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Armenian emigres in the next year, the result of an easing of immigration policies in the Soviet Union. Since October, more than 2,000 Armenians have come into the country, and 10,000 more are expected by the end of the year, the U.S. State Department says. Eighty-five percent are headed for the Los Angeles area and for two communities in particular, authorities say--Hollywood and Glendale.

Exact Number Not Known

The exact number of Armenian children entering Glendale schools is unknown because educators keep data only on languages spoken by students, not on their countries of origin. But figures indicate that Armenian students make up about one-seventh of the 21,000 students enrolled in Glendale schools.

In the classrooms, the enrollment surge, which has yet to peak, is already much in evidence. At Roosevelt Junior High School, 20 Armenian students enrolled in one day in March. At John Marshall Elementary School, more than 40 children from Armenia have enrolled in the past five months. At Horace Mann, where Principal Wayne Sparks says Armenian enrollment used to increase steadily by about 10 students each year, 89 children from Armenia have enrolled since October.

Whole Families Show Up

At Mann, that has meant that nearly every Monday and Tuesday morning in recent months entire families crowd into the school office to enroll their children, speaking in a language that only one of the clerk-typists at the school understands.

"Whammo, we got them. They're pouring in," Sparks said. "When they come in, it's not just the mother and the child. It's the mother, the grandmother, the husband, the child and the baby. It's sort of wall-to-wall there in front of the counter."

At Glendale schools, where Asian, Latino and European immigrants often outnumber American-born students, coping with newcomers has become the norm. In the more densely populated southern area of the city particularly, rapid apartment construction has contributed to the general crowding of schools.

But this year's surge in Armenian enrollment, teachers and administrators say, is so dramatic that even the most experienced educators are feeling the strain.

"That day!" Roosevelt Junior High Principal Judith White said of the March morning when her office filled with Armenians. "We had standing around the office about 100 people and not a soul spoke English. The disconcerting part for the staff was not that we had an influx of students, but that we don't know when that will happen again."

Officials say that if estimates prove true, the Armenian immigration would be the largest influx of an ethnic refugee group to Los Angeles County since the resettlement of Vietnamese "boat people" in the late 1970s.

The Armenians began leaving the Soviet Union last year, when as an apparent byproduct of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's glasnost , or new policy of openness, Soviet officials quietly began approving exit visas.

Thousands of Armenians had been seeking to leave their Soviet-dominated homeland for years for economic, political and family reasons. Many of the refugees are joining relatives in America, particularly in Glendale and Hollywood, which have the largest concentration of Armenians outside Soviet Armenia.

On the Front Lines

Officials do not know whether the relaxation of immigration restrictions in the Soviet Union will continue, nor do they know how many emigres will eventually settle in Glendale. But for now, Glendale schools are on the front lines in dealing with the immigrants, who often enroll their children even before they check into the local Department of Public Social Services for monetary assistance they can receive under the state- and federally-funded Refugee Assistance Program.

"Sometimes I just don't have time to sit down and think," teacher Mardirussian said. "Not only do I have to be teaching Armenian and English at the same time, but I have to be a counselor, a friend to parents, a part of their family. They trust everything to me--their problems, their . . . checks, their children."

Lacking enough teachers like Mardirussian, officials are straining to hire more Armenian-speaking teachers and teacher's aides, to buy Armenian books and to secure state funding.

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