A photo caption in yesterday's Metro section incorrectly said Alexandria School Board Chairman Stephen J. Kenealy believes a dual-language program has helped raise reading scores at Mount Vernon Elementary School. Kenealy noted that the school's reading scores are rising, but the dual-language program has not started yet. (Published 11/03/1999)

Alexandria has become the first suburban school system in the Washington area with more Hispanic than white students.

The shift reflects a continuing influx of Latin American immigrants as well as an increase in the number of Hispanic children born here.

Enrollment figures from this fall show that 2,723 students, or 24.7 percent of Alexandria's student body, are Hispanic, compared with 2,489, or 22.6 percent, who are non-Hispanic white. African Americans remain the largest ethnic group in the school system, representing 46.5 percent of enrollment.

The District public school system already has more Hispanic than white students. In Arlington County, 34 percent of the students are Hispanic, compared with a non-Hispanic white figure of 41 percent.

Hispanic community activists in Alexandria said the new student data underscore the underrepresentation of Hispanics on the School Board and the inadequacy of the schools' efforts to help Spanish-speaking students learn English. One in four Alexandria students is classified by school officials as having limited English proficiency.

"We need to do much more to help these kids learn the language," said Edgar Rivera, a Hispanic community activist who has two children at Alexandria's Charles Barrett Elementary School.

One of Alexandria's nine School Board members is Hispanic, and there are no African Americans on the panel.

Alexandria School Board member Mark R. Eaton said the district is working hard to serve all students, with an intense new focus on reading instruction in the early grades and a movement of more resources and more bilingual staff to schools with the heaviest concentrations of Hispanic children. "These are things we have pretty clearly in our sights," he said.

As for the fact that there is only one Hispanic member of the School Board, Eaton said, "That can be solved next May," when all nine board seats are up for election.

Outside of Alexandria, Arlington and the District, the percentage of Hispanics is growing in Washington area school systems but is still far below the percentage of non-Hispanic whites. Montgomery County's enrollment is 50.7 percent white and 14.9 percent Hispanic; Fairfax County's, 62.2 percent white and 10.4 percent Hispanic; and Prince George's County's, 15 percent white and 6 percent Hispanic.

Washington area demographers say the growth of Hispanic student populations is fueled by both the continued lure of jobs in the region's booming economy and the large numbers of new Hispanic residents who are starting families. Some Hispanic children beginning school have spent enough time in the area to do well in English, but many need special English instruction because their families speak only Spanish at home.

Bruce Crispell, senior planner for the Montgomery schools, said the most common country of birth for students in the county's English for Speakers of Other Languages program is the United States--about 30 percent of those students were born here. They learn some English from friends and television, he said, but not enough to learn at grade level without extra help.

Rivera, community project coordinator for the Tenants' and Workers' Support Committee in Alexandria, said he is pleased with plans for a new dual-language program at Mount Vernon Elementary School, which has a 53.1 percent Hispanic enrollment, the largest in the city. Spanish- and English-speaking children at Mount Vernon will be taught regular subjects in both languages. Rivera also said he applauds the recent transfer of Lulu Lopez, a veteran Hispanic educator, to be principal of Mount Vernon.

School Board Chairman Stephen J. Kenealy noted that reading scores at Mount Vernon and other schools in the city are rising and that in some cases, the gap between white and non-white scores is closing.

Rivera said more efforts are needed to cut the rate of Hispanic dropouts. "A kid might be suspended twice, they send him home, and after a while he doesn't see the point of going back to school," he said.

He also called for more Hispanic representation on the School Board. "We have to have people come and vote, and we have to inform the minority community of the importance of these issues," he said.

CAPTION: Stephen J. Kenealy, School Board chairman, says that a dual-language program has helped raise reading scores at Mount Vernon Elementary.

CAPTION: Alexandria School Board member Mark R. Eaton says the district is increasing bilingual staff to help educate all students.