One day this winter, a car drove up in front of the Gordon Center in Georgetown, unloaded a mother, father and four children, and zoomed away.
The family members were refugees from El Salvador. "They had come direct from the border," recalled Marcelo Fernandez, director of bilingual programs for District schools. "They had a little card with my name on it and Father Somoza's another school official . They said they were told we could help them with any problems."
The Salvadoran family was part of a steady stream of refugees that has been flowing into the Washington area--and into local schools--in recent months.
While some U.S. school districts, like those in Texas, are refusing to give free public education to the children of illegal immigrants, the D.C. schools will accept all children without seeking proof that they are in the country legally. D.C. school officials make no reports to immigration authorities on refugee children.
So widely known is that fact, Fernandez said, that some Salvadorans have arrived in Washington and come directly to the Gordon Center, where all foreign-born students are processed, to register their children.
Fernandez, himself a refugee from Cuba, said the D.C. public schools have been receiving about 22 new foreign students a week, most of them Salvadorans fleeing the civil strife in their country. He said the rest of the students are generally from other Latin American countries such as the Dominican Republic and Guatemala.
In suburban areas, officials said, there has also been an influx of Salvadoran pupils. In Fairfax County, the number of Salvadoran pupils in the public schools more than doubled from 26 last school year to 59 as of Jan. 31, according to Pamela Latt, coordinator of the schools' central registration office.
Fairfax requests proof of legal immigration from entering students, but will admit students without that if they can prove that they are current residents of Fairfax County.
Frank Fernandez, director of admissions for foreign students for the Montgomery County schools, said about 15 new Salvadoran students are arriving each month. Currently, there are 329 Salvadoran students in the Montgomery pubic schools, he said. Montgomery's policy on determining students' immigration status is the same as Fairfax's.
Prince George's County alone among area suburbs reported no rapid increase. That county's school board has decided to charge tuition for any children whose families cannot prove they are living in the United States legally, although these families can apply for a tuition waiver based on need.
Of the 1,748 Hispanics in the D.C. schools, 538 are Salvadorans--138 in the elementary and secondary schools and 400 in a special program for students from 16 to 21 years old at the Gordon Center, Marcelo Fernandez said.
Most of the children who have recently arrived are from poor, rural areas, he added, and at age 10 or 11 many can neither read nor write Spanish or English.
Raul, a Salvadoran child, is 9 and in a combination first-and-second grade at Ross Elementary School at 17th and R streets NW. He came to the school in September, and last week he volunteered for the first time to read a sentence aloud. It was a big step, says his teacher, Jane Halsted, but much of the work done orally in the class still goes over his head.
Halsted said Raul should probably repeat the first grade. "But then again, 10 is a little old for someone to be in the first grade," she said
While they may lag behind their peers in their schoolwork, the Salvadoran children are nonetheless forced to plunge head first into a strange new culture. "Some have never even seen how electricity works," Marcelo Fernandez said.
Always there is the memory of life--and death--in El Salvador. One day last week as he ate lunch, 11-year-old Luis recounted breathlessly how he had seen soldiers with dogs sweep through his village of San Marcos. At one point Luis, his chestnut hair falling just above his light brown eyes, spread out his rail-like arms, the way he said so many of the young men in his village did when they were searched by the police. His teacher says Luis still recounts vivid tales of violence and horror he says he witnessed in the tiny town he left four months ago.
Thin as a reed, Luis is now one of 46 Salvadoran refugees attending Adams Elementary School in Northwest Washington, where he gets two hot meals a day. In a calm and quiet classroom he is learning to write Spanish and struggling with elementary English.
The recent rapid influx, says Marcelo Fernandez, has put a strain on the 10 elementary schools that offer instruction in English as a second language (ESL) to foreign students. And, in some cases, school officials have ended up acting as counselors, helping the new immigrant families adjust.
Luis, one of five children, could only write numbers and his name when he came to Adams. Today he still has trouble recognizing and reciting the alphabet in Spanish. His ESL teacher, Giuliano Fornasa, has paired him with other, more proficient Hispanic students who are helping him with his Spanish.
Fornasa, a native of Italy, had taught school previously in Latin America. The father of one of his current students, he said, had been his student in Guatemala 20 years ago.
"I am counselor, baby sitter, and doctor as well as teacher," said Fornasa, a small, energetic man who rarely takes a break during the day.
When Luis' family first came to the United States last October, Fornasa took Luis' father, a Salvadoran farmer, to apply for a job at a hotel. He said he has also counseled Luis' mother when she felt the pressures of fast-paced American life were too much to bear.
Because the youngsters usually receive only one 45-minute ESL period a day, teachers in the regular classrooms depend a great deal on pupils who know both Spanish and English to help the new arrivals.
This process often isolates the Spanish-speaking children from the rest of the class. Fights and name-calling between the Hispanic and American students do occur, said officials.
Fornasa said he wants to begin a "peer assistance" system that would pair American with Hispanic pupils so that each can help the other. And he said he is optimistic about the young Salvadorans' prospects, given enough schooling in the language. "The American life, after all, is a life of success for the immigrant," he said.