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For the Educational Good of All

July 31, 1993

At first glance, a new report warning that U.S. public schools are failing to educate immigrant children could be seen as more evidence of how screwed up American education is. But a careful reading of "Newcomers in American Schools," by the Santa Monica-based RAND Corp., actually leaves one hopeful because it suggests that when communities work to improve public schools all children benefit--not just immigrants but the native-born as well. That should serve as further impetus for the important local effort, lead by LEARN, that aims to reform Los Angeles' public schools.

The report estimates that among the 9 million immigrants added to the nation's population between 1980 and 1990, about 2.1 million were school-age children.

Most of those kids were in big-city school districts, creating one more burden for those already overburdened institutions. But, as experiments with "newcomer" schools in some cities and efforts to hire more bilingual teachers in others have proved, good educational assimilation can be achieved. The key element, according to the RAND researchers, who looked at immigrant education in Los Angeles and seven other cities, is for school districts to decide that educating immigrant students is a high priority.

Once a community has reached consensus on that fundamental point, states and the federal government can help by providing more resources for schools with many immigrants. But even when money and resources are scant, communities can help immigrant children learn English and assimilate simply by refusing to give up on their public schools--an idea that LEARN has mightily, and creatively, been pressing in Los Angeles.

The RAND report notes that many of the educational reforms that could improve immigrant education are the very same ideas that have been put forward to improve schooling for all children, such as school-based management and closer ties between schools and surrounding neighborhoods.

More important, they are key elements of LEARN's plan to change the Los Angeles Unified School District. They can also be useful for other school districts, like Santa Ana in Orange County, that are experiencing an influx of students from abroad.

RAND's immigrant education report acknowledges that educating children who come from poor homes and often speak languages other than English is a huge challenge. But they note that the last great wave of education reform in this country coincided with the last great surge of immigration, in the early 1900s. Education reformers then used the challenge posed by the newcomers as an opportunity to rethink the way American schools operated.

RAND suggests that the latest immigrant wave gives this country a chance to rethink public education once again--a thesis that is provocative, constructive and well worth acting on.

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