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New home, new school

Utica, N.Y., adjusts to thousands of new immigrants and their children

Adis Bergic is a sturdy 12-year-old with a winning smile and almost no ability to converse in English. But the Bosnian native insists he's not worried about beginning school next month in an American classroom, surrounded by English-speaking classmates and teachers who can't understand his native language.

"I have courage," he explains, carefully sounding out his newly acquired English vocabulary.

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Adis's assertion speaks for the entire refugee community in the small rust-belt city of Utica, N.Y. In the past few years 6,500 immigrant refugees - largely Bosnian, Vietnamese, and Russian -have arrived in this regional hub of only 64,000, with 1,000 more expected to follow shortly.

Many cities are cautious about an influx of large groups of non-English-speakers who could strain both local social services and the schools. But Utica -which has watched its population slide for more than 30 years -is more enthusiastic. And as September draws near, the town is mobilizing to prepare 300 new immigrant children for the school year.

"We're happy to have them here," says Ron Mancuso, principal of Utica's Thomas R. Proctor High School, where 29 different nationalities are now represented. But make no mistake, he adds: "It's something we've had to learn to deal with."

It's something the city as a whole has had to adjust to. Significant numbers of refugees have moved in over the past 15 years or so, coming at first in small groups and more recently by the thousands. And while the city has overwhelmingly been warm in its reception, the influx of newcomers has presented challenges to everyone from teachers to minority groups.

For the schools, the newcomers have meant developing expertise in integrating kids with limited English into a mainstream curriculum. It has also meant translating "diversity" from a buzzword into a daily reality.

Back to the city's beginnings

In some ways, for Utica, the process is a return to its roots. This scrappy factory town was originally built on waves of Italian, German, and Polish immigration. Until the recent uptick in the refugee population, however, few new residents had been attracted to the city. Population in Utica hit a high of 125,000 in 1960, but many jobs and, consequently, young people, have slipped away since then.

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That's a large part of the reason foreign refugees have been so welcome. The US accepts about 100,000 refugees every year and settles them in different cities. (A refugee is anyone persecuted in his or her own country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or political conviction.)

In Utica, many residents say that the immigrants are the best thing to happen to the city in years. Many newcomers are willing to work long hours at low-paying jobs, while others have been quick -often despite little or no knowledge of English -to start their own businesses and buy their own homes.

And their children - many of whom are also driven to succeed -have filled a large number of formerly empty school desks.

"Can you imagine what it's like as a teacher to come into the classroom and hear 'Good morning, teacher,' and to be surrounded by children eager to learn?" asks Nancy Fox, a teacher who spent part of her summer teaching immigrant children the rudiments of English.

Growing pains

Despite the positive attitude of most of those involved, however, integrating so many newcomers into a small local school system has not been an easy task.

When refugee children first started arriving at the schools, "It was a major, major shock," says a former teacher at Proctor High. "The students were just placed in regular classrooms and teachers were given no staff development and didn't know how to cope. It was very difficult."

Today, however, the Utica schools are better equipped to deal with non-English-speaking students. In the elementary schools, the new students are placed in mainstream classes, but are each assigned an English-speaking buddy and are given heavy support from special staff.

Flexibility is essential to the system. After all, children learn at different speeds, says Karen Kunkel, principal of the Columbus Magnet School, one of Utica's 10 elementary schools. At her 800-student school two dozen different languages are spoken, and a quarter of the students have only limited English. "Some immediately reach an advanced level while others take much longer," Ms. Kunkel explains.

Another key lesson for her staff has been to relax in the presence of non-English-speakers. "It was difficult at first for the teachers to feel comfortable with a child who couldn't understand," Kunkel recalls. "It took time for us to realize that they were absorbing it whether we could see that or not."

In the high school, for the first time this year, "sheltered" academic classes will be provided for newcomers to ease their transition. Previously, they stayed in special "English as a second language" (ESL) classes until they were ready to enter the mainstream. Now, as an intermediate step, students with some English who are not quite ready for regular classes will be able to study math, science, and history using simplified English materials.

As with the elementary students, the progress the older students make is individualized, says Mr. Mancuso. "Some kids come to us illiterate in their home languages while others are fluent in a couple of different languages," he says. "We have to look at each individual that comes in."

But some of the refugee children, Mancuso adds, are very academically oriented. Last year, three graduated in the top 10 of their high school class.

Twelve-year-old Esma Zagonica and her two cousins are good examples of the kind of children likely to flourish in the Utica schools. Although they've been living in the US only for a few months, they already chat easily with each other in English -teasing and laughing about the boys that interest them -as they attend a summer English class at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.

"We try to always speak in English now," says Esma, although occasionally the girls exchange a few sentences in their native Bosnian. "The great thing about [English]," her cousin Emina Jusupovic confides, "is that our parents can't understand what we're talking about."

That's a genuine concern many refugee families face once their children begin school in this country. The parent-child roles reverse when kids begin serving as translators for their elders, says Aida Cvijanovic, the school case manager for the refugee center.

"It's not a comfortable thing for many parents and some feel they begin to lose the respect of their children," she explains.

Many refugee parents are also alarmed at the new habits their children so easily adopt. Some worry about lax discipline, too much television, and a lack of respect for adults. One Iraqi father was horrified to learn that his adolescent daughter was expected to walk to school alone.

Summer programs for parents

That's why the city's elementary schools sponsor a summer program for the parents of refugee students. Volunteers help the parents with English, and work to teach them the basics of the US school system, explaining things like how to read a report card.

"It's essential to make the parents a part of this," says Kunkel.

But while a number of local charities have poured considerable energy into using the summer for the benefit of refugee kids -sports instruction, counseling, art and reading programs have all been made available -not everyone in Utica is thrilled to see the refugees settle in.

Some hard feelings have been stirred among minorities, who feel they struggle for their own survival and then see the refugees guaranteed social benefits and local support.

In addition, some locals worry about the strain on the school system. With the burgeoning student population in Utica's schools, the city is now looking for 24 new teachers. It's difficult enough for a new teacher to get used to life in the classroom, they point out, without having to deal with children who speak a two dozen different languages.

Most of the town's parents, however, insists Kunkel, are enthusiastic about the broad exposure to other cultures their children get in Utica classrooms. "We're enriched by having the cultures of these families here," she says. "In today's world you need to be able to get along with people and differences, and that's something our children are learning very naturally."


(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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