A study by a Catholic University anthropologist who tracked nearly 200 impoverished teenaged immigrants from Central America for six years showed that most of the youths have adjusted well to this country and gotten productive jobs -- in large part because of vocational training they received in high school.
Supported by a unique social system including school, extended families and community groups, they appeared to be unusually capable of coping in this country despite significant cultural and linguistic barriers, the recently released study said.
Nevertheless, economic pressures often made completing high school difficult and put higher education virtually out of reach, which could limit opportunities for these young adults in the future.
The study of young immigrants at what is now the Bell Multicultural alternative public high school, was conducted by Timothy Ready, who said he saw an unusual opportunity when a wave of young Central American immigrants flooded Washington in the early 1980s.
By examining a group of these young immigrants over time, Ready believed, he could gain insight into one of the poorest and least understood sectors of Washington.
The result is a 159-page report called "Washington Latinos at the Crossroads -- Passages of At-Risk Youths from Adolescence to Adulthood."
Ready began his research in 1982 by interviewing 94 Hispanic boys and 87 Hispanic girls at the alternative school -- three-fourths of whom entered the United States between 1980 and 1982.
Then he waited six years and interviewed as many as he could find -- 77 percent of the original group -- to see how they had adjusted.
"For the first time in the history of the city, a large number of young Latinos were coming of age in Washington," Ready wrote in his report, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Studying them "provides a unique opportunity to identify the social, cultural and institutional factors affecting the future of this emerging minority group in the city."
One of the key questions he sought to answer was whether these students, desperately poor when they arrived in a city where housing and food are expensive, would be able to find their way out of poverty.
The question became more significant when another study, released as Ready was completing his second interviews, showed that Hispanics in Washington were living below poverty level at twice the rate of blacks here.
He defined the students as "at-risk" because of the very real danger of their becoming trapped in the long-term poverty cycles that greeted them when they arrived.
Most came with little knowledge of English.
Half grew up in families where neither parent had completed high school, and more than two-thirds lived in households headed by single mothers.
Nevertheless, six years later, Ready found that a majority had escaped poverty. Ninety-seven percent held full-time jobs, though many, he said, remained "at-risk" because of tenuous job circumstances.
"Nobody had any trouble finding work," Ready said during a recent interview.
He said the students most often chose service occupations, and the two main job sources were restaurants and office buildings that needed janitors.
Surprising, Ready said, was the reversal in the attitudes these students had about their status in the United States. Most initially thought of themselves as refugees, the large majority having escaped the height of civil strife in their homelands.
"When I did this survey initially, the vast majority of them said they hoped to return to live in their countries someday," Ready said.
During the second phase of his study, Ready said, many had qualified for citizenship under recent amnesty guidelines and were in the process of getting permanent residence.
"There were a few going back, but not really that many," he said.
After six years, Ready also found that 61 percent of the students had either graduated from high school or received a graduate equivalency degree.
Of those who had dropped out, 34 percent said it was from economic necessity, according to the report.
Among the most startling finding was the effectiveness of the Bell Multicultural program, Ready said.
Modeled after a Philadelphia high school that reached out to blacks, Bell's strategy is to introduce mostly immigrant students to different vocations and provide them with short-term training to get jobs.
Bell "took an unrelentingly pragmatic approach in the education of its students," Ready wrote.
Sixty-five percent of the students who had received some sort of vocational training at Bell reported that they now held jobs in related fields.
The most popular of those fields was medical assistant work, followed closely by dental assistance and office management.
Nearly all of the teenagers Ready studied begame legal residents of the United State. Nearly all worked while in high school, many in full-time jobs at night, and nearly three-fourths indicated in the first interview that they would like to work in a profession someday. Yet six years later few had made progress toward a bachelor's degree. Economic pressure and motherhood forced many to leave school and modify their career goals, often to accept less-satisfying employment, the study showed.
Although the study also examined other aspects of these immigrants' lives and adjustment, Ready said he is hesitant to draw conclusions that might be applied to help the next generation of immigrants, who are entering a larger, more impersonal community of transplanted Central Americans.
"This particular group may not be totally representative of the Latino community at large," Ready said. "Some of them told me they wonder about the younger generation following them . . . . When they came, they were the pioneers; they had to sort of set the trend and find their own way. A lot of them describe themselves as ambitious and go-getters. And they had to be."
STUDY OF 181 STUDENTS AT THE BELL MULTICULTURAL CAREER CENTER
Category ................................................ Percent
Students whose parents finished high school .................. 39
Students who finished high school or earned GED .............. 61
Students who completed one year of college or more ........... 29
Students who are working ..................................... 97
Students working in restaurants or office cleaning ........... 54
Students making $5.50 an hour or more ........................ 55
Students satisfied with education and job .................... 48
Note: The study was conducted in 1982-83, with follow-up interviews in 1988 of the 77 percent of the participants still living in Washington.
SOURCE: Timothy Ready, Catholic University Department of Anthropology.