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Va. Schools Feature 100 Languages

October 2, 1997

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) _ When Rommie Misleh walks around the corner from one class to another at Falls Church High School _ a distance of only a few feet _ he hears snippets of conversation in four or five languages.

``At least once a week I learn something I didn’t know about another country, or another language,″ said the 16-year-old, who was born in the United States to Palestinian parents.

President Clinton on Tuesday cited Fairfax County’s schools as perhaps ``the most diverse school district in the United States.″ He suggested to members of a new board organizing his yearlong examination of race relations that they all visit Fairfax, a half-hour drive from the White House.

The suburban county, where new jobs and houses have helped draw immigrants for two decades, stands out ``in big capital letters″ as a model of what much more of the country will look like in the future, Clinton said.

While the president stopped short of pronouncing Fairfax a model of harmony, racial friction in the 400-square-mile county has been mild by comparison to other large suburbs.

The level of tolerance among immigrants, blacks and whites owes much to the school system, which teaches all students in English, as well as to the availability of jobs for everyone, said Katherine Handley, chairwoman of the county governing board.

School officials said children from varying backgrounds forge friendships because they are thrown together in classrooms and united by their need to learn English.

``They’re all in it together, and that is by design,″ said Paul Regnier, school spokesman.

Stephen Fuller, an economist and author at George Mason University in Fairfax County, said that although Fairfax schools and the county government have worked hard to help immigrants settle, the main reason for racial harmony is economic.

``There is plenty of work. Everyone who wants a job can have one or two, if they want,″ Fuller said. ``It’s not like the poor are fighting over the crumbs.″

``There’s more acceptance here,″ said Charlene Carthon, a 17-year-old Falls Church High School student born in Seoul, South Korea, of Korean and black parents. ``For me, since I am biracial, it made me feel a lot more comfortable.″

Fairfax, with nearly 1 million people and only 2.4 percent unemployment, is among the nation’s wealthiest localities, and also one of the top destinations in the nation for new, often poor immigrants.

A high-tech boom in the 1980s, combined with a rapid expansion of housing and jobs in new hotels, shopping centers and the like, turned what had been a steady increase in immigrants into an explosion.

Vietnamese, who first came to the Washington area in large numbers as part of U.S. resettlement efforts for refugees after the fall of Saigon, now have an established network of churches, neighborhoods, restaurants and shopping centers.

Mrs. Handley cautioned that although the rest of the country could learn something from Fairfax, the county is not a flawless example of racial harmony. Schools and buildings have been spray-painted with ethnic slurs, and there was a memorable fight between black and Hispanic youths near a school two years ago.

``We’re proud of what we have in Fairfax, but no one should think that we are without our problems. We’re all working on it together,″ she said.

Some longtime white residents have complained that the county caters too heavily to immigrants by spending too much on language programs and community centers, and that poverty has spread with their arrival. In response, county officials recently cut welfare benefits and rejected some public housing grants.

``I don’t always like the way they do things, but they are quiet neighbors,″ said Betty Parker, who has watched her street change from all-white 20 years ago to a mixture of white, Hispanic, Vietnamese and Korean families.

Mrs. Parker objects to the large numbers of people under one roof at one house, and the seeming lack of care about the yard at another.

``I suppose I’d have some problems no matter who was living next door,″ she said.

In 1980, whites made up 86 percent of the Fairfax population. By 1996, they accounted for 68 percent. A county survey showed more than 26 percent of residents over age 5 speak a language other than English at home.

The 147,000-student school system is one of five nationally where more than 100 languages are spoken, according to the U.S. Education Department. The district has students from more than 150 countries, but some have little if any schooling in their native tongues.

Friendships and rivalries at Falls Church High cross all sorts of ethnic, cultural and economic lines, Misleh said. A festival in March called Heritage Week, with pageants and demonstrations of native culture, is one of the school’s best-attended functions.

As classes let out Wednesday, black boys jostled and joked with a grinning Vietnamese boy, and two Hispanic girls draped their arms around a Middle Eastern boy.

Linh Phung, a senior, said she will miss the camaraderie and easy friendships when she leaves for college next fall.

``People ought to take advantage of it while they can,″ said the 17-year-old, who was born in Malaysia to Vietnamese and Chinese parents. ``I think other places people who are white might look down on you.″

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