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By Karen Brandon, Tribune Staff Writer. Tribune staff writers M. Martinez & R. Quintanilla contributed.

January 12, 2001


The presence of immigrants' children in the nation's schools is soaring, now representing one of every five students, but middle and high schools are unprepared to teach them, a new report concludes.

The report, "Overlooked and Underserved: Immigrant Children in U.S. Secondary Schools," also finds that immigrants' children are, in effect, far more likely to be schooled in segregated settings than African-American children, even though black students have tended to wind up in resegregated schools in the wake of the civil rights era. Immigrant students generally are clustered in schools with heavy concentrations of other immigrants.

These children face a vise of isolation and poverty to a degree unknown by previous generations of newcomers. Three decades ago, immigrants' children were no more likely to be poor than white, native-born children. Now, these new arrivals are more than three times as likely to live in poverty than their white, native-born peers are. Seventeen percent of foreign-born children lived in poverty in 1970, compared to almost 44 percent in 1995.

The report, conducted by the Urban Institute, a non-profit policy research organization based in Washington, underscores one way in which the nation is being transformed by an ongoing wave of immigration.

The trend has social and economic implications for the nation. Historically, newcomers arrive seeking a better life than was possible in their homeland. But the new economy in the U.S. is characterized by both its seemingly unlimited promise and distinctly unforgiving nature, and is unlikely to offer even a living wage to those lacking English or basic skills.

"If you don't educate people, they fall behind in terms of every social indicator," said Michael Fix, one of the study's authors. "If you do educate people, they progress rapidly."

Chicago officials said the city's public schools have done a good job of addressing the needs of immigrant students.

"I like to think that all of our schools with rare exceptions are ready to meet the challenges" of educating immigrants' children, said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools.

Older children entering the school system have the most difficult time adjusting, Vallas said, but he added that the school system has tried to help them and their parents. In particular, parent counselors, immigrants who have been in Chicago long enough to give guidance to newcomers, are hired to help new families make the transition.

Some 60,000 children, roughly 1 in 7 of the district's students, are enrolled in Limited English Proficiency courses, said Blondean Davis, chief of schools and regions for the Chicago Public Schools. Most of those students are Hispanic or Polish, she said.

"Chicago is not new to immigrants," she said. "We have been addressing concerns raised in the report for decades."

Nationwide, though, the presence of immigrants' children has skyrocketed, tripling in schools in the past 30 years. They now account for about 20 percent of the school population, more than African-Americans, who represent 16 percent.

"No American institution has felt the effect of these [immigration] flows more forcefully than the nation's public schools…” wrote the report’s authors, Fix, Jorge Ruiz-de-Velasco and Beatriz Chu Clewell…