Alexandria's Hispanic population is growing and includes more immigrants from Central American countries than ever before. The population struggles with English and is relatively poor, and the majority of adults have limited education, according to the results of a survey of the city's Hispanic residents released last week.

The survey, conducted from 1998 to 1999 by nonprofit groups led by the Alexandria United Way and in conjunction with community organizations, local government and private citizens, is intended to give local agencies and policymakers current information about the changing Hispanic community.

The goal of the effort, which took three years to conceptualize and complete and included interviews with nearly 500 residents, was to update a survey done 10 years earlier, and by doing so, help service providers and planners increase outreach opportunities and improve programs and services, officials said.

"We wanted to see where immigrants were coming from and what the population looked like to better understand the Alexandria community," said Patrice Linehan, a volunteer with United Way and research coordinator for the survey. "We didn't want to know just about the needs, we also wanted to know more about the people."

Alexandria's population, according to census data, is 60 percent white, 22 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. The Hispanic population has grown dramatically since 1980, when census figures showed that Hispanics made up only 4 percent of the city's population.

The population of school-age Hispanic children has grown even more rapidly--from 4 percent in 1980 to 23 percent today. The city's Hispanic community is largely concentrated in the West End and Arlandria.

While the majority of those who completed the survey--about 64 percent--said they had not completed high school, adults placed a high priority on their children's education and said they expected their children to finish high school, and 67 percent said they expected their children to attend a four-year college.

Among Alexandria's new Hispanic residents are families that come from Central and South America--particularly El Salvador--according to the survey, which shows that the new immigrants are mostly young adults with elementary school age children. Most come to the United States with no more than eight years of schooling, cannot understand English and have few job skills.

Officials said the language barrier and lack of job training make it hard for many immigrants to find employment. According to the study, the per-capita income of Alexandria's Hispanic community is $7,306, and nearly half of those residents go without health insurance for themselves and their families.

"We have confirmed what we long felt, that Alexandria's Hispanic population is poorer than we really imagined," said Howard Spiegelman, chairman of the assessment study committee and director of community resources for Alexandria schools. "The level of poverty all around was surprising."

Language proficiency--both English and Spanish--surfaced as a major problem for the city's Hispanic residents, the vast majority of whom said they needed help speaking, reading or writing English. In addition, 28 percent said someone in their household needed help reading their native Spanish, and 25 percent said help was needed with writing it.

"It's becoming very evident to us in the school system and the city how many parents are illiterate in their own language," Spiegelman said, adding that the schools will sometimes send information, written in Spanish, home to parents who can't read it. In turn, the parents can't help their children learn to read or write in Spanish or English. "Often the children help the parents."

The survey data, officials said, depict a community in need of special services, and those services are not reaching enough people.

The survey found that English as a Second Language classes were used by 43 percent of the households that need help reading, writing or speaking English. Services to help find medical care were used by 22 percent.

However, 30 to 36 percent of households reported needing, but not using, ESL classes, other education classes, job training or employment services, information on public benefits and services to help find health care.

Asked why they didn't take advantage of such services, 36 percent said they didn't know where to find help; 30 percent said they had no transportation; and 27 percent said they had no child care.

While the overall population of Alexandria had a median household income of $61,408 in 1996, the survey found that the median Hispanic household income was $30,000. At the time of the survey, the unemployment rate for all city residents was 2.1 percent, while the unemployment rate for Hispanics surveyed was 12 percent. Of those who were employed, 66 percent held full-time jobs.

Asked why members of their households were out of work, 36 percent said they couldn't find child care. Others cited age or disability, lack of job skills, inability to speak English or no work permit or transportation.

Of those who completed the survey, 60 percent of the households reported receiving assistance from federal or state programs for low-income residents. Forty-four percent of respondents said their children received subsidized school lunches.

Ricardo Drumond, a Latin American affairs specialist for Alexandria's Department of Human Services, worked on both the 1989 survey and this latest effort, which he said was done to educate the community, citizens and policymakers alike.

"One of the goals when we worked on the survey was not to editorialize, Drumond said. "We wanted to present something that was unbiased, so people could draw their own conclusions."