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High Hopes : Many Immigrants, Unlike Many Natives, Still Look to America as the Land of Opportunity--for Education


Nidia Calles wanted very much to be an independent, working woman when she grew up.

But a 12-year-old girl living in the small town of Santa Barbara, Honduras, was not supposed to have such thoughts. Yes, it was the 1980s, but in the part of the world where she was living, social customs proscribed that girls marry, have children and settle down to avoid becoming teen-age spinsters.

So Calles jumped at the chance to come to America at 16, although it meant leaving her mother and siblings behind.

"My parents were divorcing at the time, and my father's mother was living in the United States. She was sponsoring him to be here," said Calles, now 25.

Calles came to America, and got an education afforded her by Los Angeles High School and subsequently Santa Monica City College.

Now she is the working woman she always wanted to be, teaching English as a second language (ESL) classes to about 175 students at L.A. High.

"I want to be part of an education process that these kids can turn to," she said. "I want to make an impact on their lives the way my teachers did on mine, so they can become productive members of society."

As school districts throughout the state graduate another class of seniors this month, the nation continues to debate the cost of public education, especially when it comes to immigrants--documented and undocumented.

Last year, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 187, which would, if its constitutionality is upheld by the courts, put restrictions on health and social service benefits and education for illegal immigrants.

"We recognize the impact of the value of education for all young people. That has never been at issue. For students new to this country, education is an investment this country is making to assist new Americans," said Maureen DeMarco, California's child development and education director. "But the governor has always felt strongly that the failure of the federal government to enforce the border and compensate the state for that failure causes a diminution of services provided for those who came here legally."

Politicians and lawmakers may argue the relative merits and costs of educating immigrants, but among immigrants, especially recent arrivals, there is in general a consensus: Getting a public education in the United States is a dream come true. As Calles and tens of thousands of other immigrants see it, the open door of American schools is the ultimate symbol of democracy. And many U.S. educators agree.

"Schools are the one institution that is best equipped to introduce students to American values, American culture, the kinds of ideals we stand for--tolerance, independence, liberty," said Lorraine McDonnell, a professor of political science and education at UC Santa Barbara and a researcher at Rand, a nonprofit institution that seeks to improve public policy through research projects. "It wasn't that much different at the turn of the century."

Nationally, about 820,000 students who immigrated in the last three years are enrolled in public schools for the 1995-1996 school year as part of the Emergency Immigrant Education Assistance Program (EIEAP). Of that number, 277,000 are enrolled in California public schools. About 51,000 (of 636,416 students) are enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District. EIEAP tracks and provides extra English classes for immigrant students who have been in the United States for three years or less.

The State Department of Education estimates that the 277,000 figure includes some of the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 students who are illegal immigrants.

Nationally, funding for EIEAP comes to about $50 million annually, said Harpredt Sandhu, EIEAP's national director. For the L.A. school district, the cost breaks down to about $47 per student, said Lila Silvern, coordinator of the L.A. school district's EIEAP. That is in addition to the nearly $4,300 that each student in kindergarten through 12th grade presently costs the state per year.

About 90% of the EIEAP students in the L.A. school district are from Mexico or Central America, she said. The balance is from South Korea, China, Armenia, Russia, Haiti, Vietnam, Cuba, the Philippines--just about anywhere in the world.

"I generally feel upbeat about these kids, because there's a seriousness about them," Silvern said. "They know they are not going to get things handed to them. They still feel that education is going to pull them up. For them, education may mean jobs."

For them, education may also mean hope.

"We came here because we know we needed a better life," said Berenice Castellanos, who emigrated from Mexico with her parents, two sisters and a brother in 1992. "We just decided to come here to have a better future, a better education."

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