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ESL Enrollment Slows in Inner Suburbs

Real Estate Prices And Zoning Cited

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page B01

The once-rapid enrollment increase in classes for non-English speakers has slowed suddenly in most of the area's inner suburban school systems, and puzzled educators are trying to figure out why.

Education officials know that many immigrant families, priced out of the gentrifying close-in neighborhoods, are moving to less expensive communities farther out. Some officials suggest that recent economic doldrums could have tamped down the number of new arrivals. One expert wonders whether some foreign students are graduating more quickly from English classes.

Cindy McGonigle works with Jhon DeLeon, 6, in an ESL class at Arlington's Barrett Elementary, in a community whose demographics have shifted. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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"We think we know where they are going -- they are going to Prince William, the Shenandoah Valley, Culpeper," said Allen C. Griffith, a Fairfax City School Board member who coordinates a Virginia school boards committee on immigrant-student issues. "We believe it's a function of the real estate prices and perhaps a little bit stricter enforcement of the zoning codes with regard to how many people can live in an apartment."

The area's immigrant population has soared in recent decades, revitalizing many neighborhoods and straining budgets for schools and services. Experts say that immigration might have receded nationwide in the past two years but that it remains at the sizable levels of the mid-1990s. The census figures that experts relied on are not precise enough to draw conclusions about whether immigration has slowed, so school figures could offer an intriguing, early clue.

Immigration has been the major cause of population growth in four close-in communities where foreign-student enrollments have slowed. In Arlington County, classes for non-English speakers signed up fewer students this year than last year. In Alexandria, enrollment has declined slightly for the past two years. And enrollment rose slightly this fall in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, in contrast to double-digit growth in years past.

In the District, enrollment in classes for students with limited English skills continues to climb, according to State Education Office figures. And in Prince George's County, which has the region's largest amount of moderately priced suburban housing, school officials say enrollment growth has not slowed. Some counties farther out in Maryland have seen modest increases, but some exurban and rural Virginia counties continue to have dramatic upswings.

Nowhere have Arlington's shifting school demographics been more marked than at Barrett Elementary School, near Ballston in one of the county's most international neighborhoods. The school enrolls 340 students -- a decline of about 150 students since 2001. Principal Theresa Bratt says that the decline is mainly because of a decrease in foreign-born children in the community.

Bratt says that immigrant parents with modest-paying jobs tell her that they cannot afford to live in Arlington, where the average assessment on a single-family home is $369,600 this year. The families of several students who attended Barrett said they are relocating to Prince William. Some families come back for help with school paperwork "because they don't have bilingual secretaries there," Barrett Elementary secretary Nellie Vargas said.

Several Barrett staff members have relocated from Arlington or Alexandria to Prince William including Sandra Espinoza, a secretary born in El Salvador. She says she went to high school in Arlington and did not want to leave but could not afford to buy a house there. Three years ago, she and her husband bought a three-bedroom $137,000 townhouse in Lake Ridge. Some of their neighbors are former Arlington residents.

She says their home has doubled in value since they purchased it -- an advantage for her but an obstacle for others who want to move there. "Now," she said, "people from Arlington are moving further -- like Fredericksburg."

At Barrett, the enrollment decline means that three rooms that had been divided by temporary partitions in 2001 no longer are split. Reading groups now do not need to meet in hallways. There is room for a new preschool special-needs class.

In one classroom, in which the furniture was labeled "table," "chair" and "desk," eight first-graders sat at a low table with ESL teacher Cindy McGonigle, practicing their English alphabet. "Where's the W, sweetie?" she asked one student, pointing to a letter on a chart. "Is this it?" The boy shook his head. He rejected two other choices she offered before nodding his head at the correct one.

Before enrollment began to decline, Bratt said, 12 or 15 students might have been at the table.

"It's changing our school completely," Bratt said. "Having space is nice, but we can have a few more people here."

In Fairfax County, enrollment grew 12 percent to 15 percent annually between 1998 and last year, and is increasing 3 percent to 4 percent a year, says Teddi Predaris, director of the county's English for Speakers of Other Languages office. "What we're anticipating is this steady kind of growth and perhaps a decline in the future, just judging from Arlington," she said.

She has heard from immigrant families who say they are moving farther out because housing is cheaper there. "Another [reason] is job opportunities," Predaris said. "There are more and more jobs opening up as construction is evolving in Loudoun or Prince William to accommodate growing population needs."

"We're still experiencing growth, but it's not as much growth as it's been," said Karen Woodson, director of Montgomery County's English for Speakers of Other Languages program. "Why it's less, I really can't tell you."

In Alexandria, "certainly the tightened immigration policies, we think, may have had some effect," said Carol Lisi, director of Alexandria's English as a Second Language program. "And affordable housing is an issue."

One immigration expert, Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution, cautions that the reasons behind the decline might be more complex than they seem. For example, she suggests, it is possible that some students are mastering English more quickly than in the past and graduating from ESL classes sooner, which would keep numbers down.

Demographers say that the enrollment slowdown does not mean the area is becoming less attractive to immigrants. They say that established family and social networks will continue to encourage people to move here and that the region's strong economy will have jobs to offer.

"I still think it's a very strong popular area to move to, to the extent that housing can be found," Montgomery County schools demographer Bruce Crispell said. "I still think people will find ways to live here."

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