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EDUCATION : Immigrant Youths Thankful to Get an American Education

November 22, 1990|MARY YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School. She writes a weekly column on education for The Times

Many of us will take a few minutes today to give thanks for the good things in our lives. One thing that many of us will overlook, however, because we take it for granted, is our right to a free education.

In Nancy Ritter's English as a Second Language (ESL) class at Fairfax High School, the students have a different perspective. These newcomers to the United States are keenly aware and appreciative of the advantages offered by American public schools.

A free education for every citizen is the cornerstone of the American vision of democracy, and being turned away from school because of poverty is unthinkable. But in much of the world, education is only for those children whose families can pay.

Nearly all of the Fairfax students mentioned surprise and gratitude for not having to pay for their schooling.

"We don't have to pay and we get everything free, different from my country," said Maria Bire, 16. In her native Indonesia, Bire's family had to pay for books and uniforms, along with a monthly fee. "It's about $3 (per month), but that's a lot of money in Indonesia," she said.

William Rodas, 18, agreed. "I don't have to pay anything here. But in Guatemala, I needed much money for school, and I am not a rich person."

Several students compared their American teachers with teachers in their homelands and were thankful for the differences.

"I can talk to the teacher like my friend," said Inga Rustamoza, a 17-year-old Ukrainian, "but in my home country I didn't do that real often. Here they care more."

Pedro Gamboa, 17, also preferred American teachers to those in his native Mexico. "(They are) the best . . . I can speak the language and understand everybody, thanks to my teachers."

Ethnic diversity in Westside schools is also something to be thankful for, according to Emese Simon, 16. "In Hungarian school, I had only Hungarian people, but here I have so many friends from different countries," she said. Simon lists among her friends an Israeli, a Russian and a boyfriend from Guatemala.

Although many American students shun their school libraries, some of the ESL students were quite appreciative.

Since Guatemalan schools do not have libraries, "it's difficult to find some things, like a book or information about something," said Rodas. "Here it's easier."

Bire added that, along with everything else in Indonesian schools, borrowing library books costs money, too.

Sonny Chang, 17, appreciates the opportunity to play tennis on the school team even though, he says, he's not a good player. Chang said this would not be possible in his native land. "In Korea, if you join the team, you must be good or you must be the best," he said. "Here they don't care--if you're interested, you can (play)."

Chang is also thankful for the shorter schedule at most American schools; Korean schools start at 7:30 a.m. and finish at 10 p.m., with just a half-hour lunch break. "That's six days a week, even Sunday," he said.

Although Thanksgiving is a new custom for the ESL students, they have adapted quickly to the practice of giving thanks for the good things in their lives, and they put education high on the list.

Rustamoza seemed to best reflect the students' general views about their schooling and their new homeland: "Here is more freedom, more opportunity," she explained. "I want to say, 'Thank you.' "

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