Scattering students in Salt Lake's English as a Second Language program to the city's three high schools would be costly and hurt both the students and the program's effectiveness.

That's the conclusion of a study, conducted by school personnel and community leaders, for the Salt Lake Board of Education.Currently, the school district houses the ESL program at Highland High School, but the board raised the issue of whether the 152 ESL students should be spread among the city's three high schools as a way to balance enrollment. The ESL program offers special classes and instruction to students who are not native English speakers.

The 24-member committee agrees unanimously that the ESL program should be left at Highland High School, said committee chairwoman Jan Cox, a teacher at Salt Lake Community High School, a district alternative school.

Superintendent John W. Bennion said school board members will probably consider the report again, but he thinks they will be reluctant to move the program in light of the committee's strong recommendation to keep ESL at Highland.

The report says spreading out the students would result in a loss of federal dollars supplementing the program.

Cox said moving ESL to three sites would cost an additional $119,191, but each school would be left with only a skeleton program.

"It would cost more money to possibly destroy what is now a highly effective and successful program," Cox said.

Even if the whole program was moved to another school, it would be highly disruptive for the students, she said. The ESL program was originally located at South High School but was moved to Highland when South closed three years ago.

"They are now just feeling truly apart of the Highland community," Cox said of the ESL students.

The ESL program, originally called the Port of Entry program, was designed in 1975 for up to 18 students from the city's three high schools. But that fall, Southeastern Asian refugees began to pour into the United States, and the ESL program had more than 300 students enrolled by the end of the first year.

"The need for ESL will continue as refugees continue to settle at the rate of 100 per month," Cox said.

She said ESL students, who need time to adjust to a new home, are at greater risk for problems of dropping out, drugs and gangs.

Having the ESL program at one school offers social as well as educational benefit, she said.

The committee also sought comments from parents and students, who said they recognize the importance of ESL in helping students master English.

"The students not only want the ESL program to continue, but they do not wish to see it suffer or be diluted. That is one of the reasons for repeated verbal requests to keep the program at Highland," the report says.

One student wrote, "The ESL program is very important for each student because one feels that he is surrounded by his own people and one is learning along with people who speak your own language."

Another said, "It is very difficult or almost impossible to make friends with Americans because they discriminate because of our English and because of our race."

One recommendation of the report was that the program needs to continue educating Highland teachers and students about the ESL program and its students.