During the past two years, the Latino population at San Diego High downtown has grown by more than 100 students annually, boosting Latino enrollment from 43% to 56% of the school's total, with almost all of the gain a result of Mexican and Central American immigration.
More important for an already squeezed bilingual program, an increasing percentage of students are arriving at age 16 or older, often a month or more after the school semester begins, with few or no school records or transferable credits from their home country, and many barely literate in their native Spanish, let alone knowing nothing of English.
For these students--the majority of whom are here because of amnesty--the simultaneous demands of learning English, acclimating to American schools, and tackling 20 courses from algebra to biology, all in order to graduate after three years, prove increasingly unrealistic.
Dropout rates average more than 50%, with students leaving to find work full-time, to take care of younger siblings in very large families, or to return to Mexico--with discouragement over schooling a common denominator behind almost all of these decisions.
With the numbers also impacting other schools--Hoover High in mid-city and schools in the South Bay central are among them--administrators are grappling for innovative ways to try and keep more of these immigrants in the educational pipeline.
In the South Bay, the Sweetwater school district has set up a pilot "Newcomer's Center" where newly arrived teen-agers can get a semester's customized dose of intensive English, basic U.S. cultural and historical orientation, computer and study skills, and personal counseling--all before being turned loose into a regular high school bilingual program.
Educators from San Diego city schools hope this spring to propose course work for some immigrant students different from the required core curriculum which leads to graduation, around which the content of existing bilingual courses has been bent to try and meet.
In its larger context, the issue is forcing bilingual education to address academic preparation as well as language training at the junior- and senior-high level, since immigrant teen-agers are coming with a tremendous range of educational backgrounds.
Not all the immigrant students show up with little previous schooling. At Hoover High, for example, the number of Latino students has jumped from 20% to nearly 30% in two years, and many of the urbanized immigrants have good academic backgrounds. But they complain that they end up in low-level math and science because there are no higher-level academic courses to take while they are still learning English.
These students want more challenging bilingual courses and about 60 have organized the club Hispano Americano at Hoover to provide tutoring for each other, lobby for more academic recognition and gain better social acceptance at the school.
But for area educators, the most pressing problem for now centers on those with poor schooling.
"We want to try something for a kid who comes to our school, not literate in Spanish, not speaking any English, with only three or four years of schooling in their whole life and already 16," Cathy Hopper, assistant superintendent for the San Diego Unified School District, said. "It's unrealistic to think we're going to get them to graduation before they drop out."
Among several scenarios being explored by a special district committee which Hopper chairs are: intensive beginning reading instruction in both English and Spanish; survival skills for coping in American society; academic and/or vocational instruction in conjunction with the continuing education program at San Diego community colleges.
"They're all options," schools Supt. Tom Payzant said, who will bring a proposal from the committee to school trustees sometime in the spring. "We've got to start with a whole different set of assumptions about what we can do in one, or two or three years, for these students. Do we just try intensive language study and not do a broad curriculum at the outset?"
At San Diego High, in the heart of the city's urban core where many immigrant families can afford rent, 87 of the 116 students enrolled this year for ESL 1 (the first-level English-as-a-second-language course) are 16 years or older, 68 brought no credits from other schools usable toward graduation, 84 had no school records at all, and only 31 were literate--able to read and write--in Spanish.
The school runs four two-hour blocks of ESL 1, ESL 2 and ESL 3, and tries to place as many students as possible into bilingual classes in math, biology, physics, world history and U.S. history. The number of such students is more than 300, about 20% of the school's 1,460 total. A substantial number of the school's remaining 500 Latino students have only recently transitioned out of ESL classes and are still struggling with some aspects of academic English.