Ask a student to learn difficult material in an unfamiliar language and you risk losing that student.

Ethnic minorities often struggle with language, said Alan Hofmeister. In Utah, he said, many Hispanic youngsters leave school early when language becomes a learning barrier.Hofmeister is the director of technology at the Utah State University Center for Persons With Disabilities (CPD). He has dealt with these problems nationally for years. Now he and his colleagues are doing the same in Utah, working with Principal Cy Freston at Ben Lomond High School in Ogden.

The USU group has developed technology to put programs on video disc. They are used in English-as-a-second-language programs all over the nation. Over a 10-year period, with $8 million in mostly private funds, they have developed the country's largest video-based information base in math and science.

"We have programs in downtown Atlanta and in the toughest schools in Chicago," Hofmeister said. "And they're working in Puerto Rico, which has the worst math-science scores in America."

At the request of the Ogden School District, similar programs are being tried in Utah involving kids from tough neighborhoods.

A recent "Kids Count" survey identified nearly 4,000 distressed neighborhoods in the United States. Of the four in Utah, three are in Ogden and all three send students to Ben Lomond.

"Current techniques in schools don't address the language difference well," Hofmeister said. "We chose to make the language difference a strength, in many ways."

A program called "Graduation with Dignity for the Language- Different" started fall quarter at Ben Lomond. Hofmeister said 25 Hispanic students were taken through a geometry course, first in Spanish to master the concepts.

"That strengthens their communication and their confidence and they learn the content," Hof-mei-ster said. "Then we go back through the material rapidly, in what we call fast track, in a more condensed version in English. Now we're strengthening their English."

Hofmeister said the video disc methods work because students get spoken words and text - called open captioning - on the screen at the same time as the video action.

He said this technology puts USU on the front line in meeting critical needs in schools in the face of recent court decisions. Judges in Florida and California have ruled it is discriminatory to deliver all instruction in English when students' strongest language is Spanish.

"We design our courses for language-deficient kids," Hofmeister said. "But every science and math course is taught as a reading and language course as well."

Hofmeister said Ben Lomond students are two-thirds of the way through the math course and are clammoring for more material. "That is a big change from when they started this program," he said.