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In Berta Pareja Prescott's kindergarten class at Washington Elementary School, conversation slips easily back and forth from Spanish to English.

"The cat" becomes "el gato" from one student to the next as Prescott engrosses the children in the fascinating tale of the crooked man whose crooked cat caught a crooked "mouse" - or "raton," as the case may be.Prescott, who came to the United States from Lima, Peru, about 20 years ago, capitalizes on her bilingual background to make school easier for students in the Salt Lake District school, located in a neighborhood where several ethnic groups are represented and 43 percent of the students are minorities.

Last year, four of her students spoke Russian as their primary language. She now teaches a Vietnamese child. Regardless of their background, however, each child recognizes one language in her classroom - that of respect and acceptance.

Prescott's mixed-culture, mixed-language class, however, with bilingual children taught by a bilingual teacher, is not typical in Utah.

In fact, some Utah students who are members of a minority group may complete their entire public-school experience without ever having direct contact with a teacher of their own race - or from any other minority group.

Minority students represent only 7.6 percent of Utah's school population, with larger districts having higher percentages of minority students - 26 percent of the students in Salt Lake District are members of minority groups. But minority educators are rarer yet, making up only 2.5 percent of the state's total educator ranks.

Utah's figures reflect a national trend, although the disparity is even greater in the Beehive State. Nationally, there is a minority teacher for roughly every two minority students. In Utah, the ratio is approximately one to three.

According to an Office of Civil Rights survey, in 1991, 86.8 percent of all U.S. teachers were white, while 8 percent were black, 3 percent Hispanic, 1.4 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and 0.9 percent American Indian and Alaska natives. Minority student enrollment was 38.7 percent.

The dearth of minority edu-cators hurts students in two ways, said Richard P. Gomez, coordinator of the Educational Equity Section in the State Office of Education.

Minority students lack positive role models from their own cultural backgrounds among the teachers with whom they spend a large part of their formative years.

White students, on the other hand, don't learn the richness of a variety of cultures when they are not exposed to them in the classroom. They don't learn how to interact with either children or adults who are different. The typical Utah classroom consists of white students instructed by a white teacher.

"Old stereotypes die hard," said Gomez. Prejudices and misconceptions about people of other cultures thrive in an atmosphere of ignorance.

The state office offers workshops and in-service training for teachers to sensitize them to the need for exposing all children to a variety of cultures. But the effort should begin earlier, while teachers are still in training, Gomez said. (See related story.)

Children from different cultures often learn differently. In a system geared to the majority population, they may have a rough go in school, getting progressively further behind until school no longer interests them.

Minority teenagers who feel isolated in their public schools not only perform below majority-group peers, but some become alienated to the point of joining gangs and taking up self-destructive, socially unacceptable behaviors, Gomez said.

Several factors keep minority high school graduates from choosing education as a career, Gomez said.

Some minority groups do not encourage post-high school education to the same degree as others. Oriental groups, however, have high expectations of young people, and the attitudes are reflected in test scores and higher education ambitions, Gomez said.

What leads a foreign family to emigrate to the United States often is a factor. Families from Southeast Asia, he noted, are often well-educated political refugees. Emigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, on the other hand, often are escaping intolerable economic conditions and are looking more for survival than educational enhancement.

Colleges and universities put subtle roadblocks in the way of minority students, as well, he said.

Entry requirements are biased against non-whites whose primary language may not be English. They discourage minorities, many of whom are "late bloomers," Gomez said.

When minority students do go on to higher education, the trend is to seek the high-profile, high-paying professions that have opened up to women and minorities.

"Education as a career is low on their priority lists," Gomez said.

From his own experience, Gomez learned how important one teacher can be in the life of one student. "A West High School teacher insisted that I do my best. He told me I could go to college and succeed," he said. "He wouldn't let me settle for the easy classes." That encouragement was the impetus Gomez needed to take a path that has influenced many others in his family.

Demographics are changing in the United States and in Utah. By the year 2000, the majority of U.S. jobs will be held by members of minority groups as their numbers increase. To provide capable workers, education will have to stretch to better meet the needs of minority students, Gomez said.

Many Utah school districts, especially those with the greatest number of minority students, try to recruit minority teachers.

In Salt Lake District, 26 percent of the students are minorities, up from 22 percent five years ago. On the other hand, the percentage of certified teachers who are minorities has dropped from 7.1 percent to 6.5 percent.

Salt Lake, however, is committed to increasing its percentage of minority teachers and other employees and has added money to the 1992-93 district budget for that purpose, J. Dale Manning, personnel director, said.

The district is now hiring a minority relations coordinator, who will also work half-time with the State Office of Education. The coordinator will develop a comprehensive minority recruitment plan and will work to expand staff in-service training on minority issues, he said.

Granite District, which is seeing growth in all of the major minority groups, relies primarily on word of mouth.

"We are an equal opportunity employer," said Sue Denton, of the district office. When district administrators are away from Utah attending meetings, they try to interest teachers in job opportunities in Utah. "But they don't have a whole lot of success," said Denton.

Lower wages, larger average class sizes and the smaller number of minority educators already in the system discourage minority teachers from locating here, she said.

GRAPH: Student enrollment and dropout rate

Racial Breakdown Oct. 1, 1991


Total enrollment: 411,672

Total dropouts: 5,135


Total enrollment: 16,659

Total dropouts: 485


Total enrollment: 6,125

Total dropouts: 241


Enrollment: 6,655


Enrollment: 1,220

Total enrollment 93


Total enrollment: 2,434

Total dropouts: 33

Source: Utah State Office of Education

CHART: ACT scores

Average 1992

Racial Group Utah U.S.

Afro American/Black 18.0 17.0

American Indian/Alaskan 17.2 18.1

Caucasian/White 21.3 21.3

Mexican/Chicano 18.9 18.4

Asian American/Pacific Islander 20.3 21.6

Puerto Rican/Spanish 20.0 19.3

Source: Utah State Office of Education