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Immigrant Education


Charles L. Glenn

Charles L. Glenn


The United States is often called a "nation of immigrants"; more accurately the nation always comprised both newcomers and those who worry about the impact of the newcomers on the existing society. The relationship between newcomers and established families has always been in some sense filled with tensions, uncertainties, and even bitter conflicts. It has also been characterized by varied efforts at accommodation and adaptation, often but not always on the part of the newcomers alone.

Immigration to the United States

Between 1820 and 1996, 63 million immigrants arrived in the United States. Germans were cumulatively the largest group, with 7.1 million, followed by Mexicans, with 5.5 million (60 percent of the Mexican immigrants over the 176-year period had arrived in the last 15 years). Other groups of immigrants, in order, were from Italy (5.4 million), the United Kingdom (5.2 million), Ireland (4.8 million), Canada (4.4 million, however, many Irish immigrants came via Canada), and Russia (which used to include much of Poland and the Baltic states–3.8 million).

Immigrants who arrived before the 1840s were for the most part similar to the native population, if not superior in education and ambition; they were rarely considered a problem by the native-born population. With the arrival of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics in the two decades before the Civil War, however, immigrants began to be seen as a threat to American society. The number of immigrants tripled between the 1830s and the 1840s, and the country received as many immigrants in the 1850s as in the two previous decades combined. Between 1845 and 1854 immigration increased the American population by 17.6 percent, a much higher rate than in the latter half of the twentieth century.

After many decades of essentially unrestricted admission, the United States imposed restrictions in 1882 excluding criminals, prostitutes, and the physically and mentally ill. "Nine years later the category of excluded undesirables was extended to take in as well believers in anarchism and in polygamy. These minimal controls reflected no disposition to check the total volume of immigration" (Handlin, p. 287).

Late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, widely considered to come from "inferior stock," were restricted, though much needed by an expanding economy. In the wave of xenophobia that swept over the United States during World War I, a literacy requirement was imposed in 1917. The phase of qualitative restrictions ended with the National Origins Act of 1924, which placed strict quantitative restrictions on the number of immigrants allowed from various nations, explicitly designed to limit immigration from countries that were considered less desirable sources of future citizens.

Puerto Ricans, as United States citizens, enjoyed an unrestricted right to migrate in search of better economic conditions. With the introduction of air service between San Juan and New York City after World War II, the United States experienced what was surely the world's first mass migration by air, with almost 136,250 Puerto Ricans coming to the U.S. mainland in 1947 alone.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act Amendments of 1965 repealed the quotas favoring northwestern Europe (such as those established by the National Origins Act of 1924) but set a limit of 20,000 immigrants per year from each nation of the Eastern Hemisphere and for the first time placed restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and subsequent laws have continued to tinker with the terms for the admission of immigrants and refugees.

Reactions to Immigrants

The American colonists' own adaptation to the new circumstances of their life, especially in the mid-Atlantic colonies, involved a largely unproblematic mixing of people who had had much less contact in their home countries of early modern Europe. By the time of the American Revolution, the French immigrant turned American farmer St. John de Crèvecoeur would write that the nations of Europe had been combined to create: "the American, this new man…leaving behind all his ancient prejudices and manners…he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions" (pp. 49–50).

The prominent physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush published an essay in 1786 that called for the establishment of public schools in Pennsylvania. A remarkable feature of his proposal was its recommendation that children "be taught to read and write the English and German languages," and attendance districts be so arranged that "children of the same religious sect and nation may be educated as much as possible together" (pp. 5, 7).

In fact, until the 1830s most schooling in Pennsylvania (and in the states to its south) was provided by church initiatives, usually on a denominational and thus ethnic basis. Quaker, Anglican, and Presbyterian schools, schools of German Lutheran and Reformed congregations, and a whole range of other variations provided what schooling was available. State authorities sought to meet their obligation to provide for the schooling of those whose parents could not afford to pay tuition by providing what would now be called vouchers, enabling them to go to existing nonpublic schools and academies, including church schools.

In Pennsylvania, what would become a widespread anxiety about the effects on American society of immigration was anticipated (like so much else) by Benjamin Franklin. In 1752 he asked "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us rather than our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs?" On the eve of the American Revolution, Franklin returned to this theme, noting "the vast unpeopled [sic] Territories of North America," and warning that "Germans are now pouring into it, to take possession of it, and fill it with their Posterity" (pp. 374, 709–710).

Similarly, Thomas Jefferson warned in 1787 that immigrants would "bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbridled licentiousness…. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children" (p. 211).

It was only in the 1830s, though, that concern about the cultural and religious differences of immigrants began to be a basis for educational policy. In 1836 Calvin Stowe of Ohio warned that "unless we educate our immigrants, they will be our ruin…. The intellectual and religious training of our foreign population has become essential to our own safety"(p. 993). This was a primary motivation for the extension of the "common school" system of publicly controlled education, and for opposition to public funding for Catholic schools.

When Catholic immigrants (first Germans, then other groups) began to organize their own schools, as did some Protestant and Jewish immigrants, it was perceived by many as an expression of refusal to accept the requirements of life in American society. Their children "will be shut up," warned a prominent Protestant minister in 1853, "in schools that do not teach them what, as Americans, they most of all need to know…. They will be instructed mainly into the foreign prejudices and superstitions of their fathers." If, instead, the children of immigrants could be gathered into the common public school, "we may be gradually melted into one homogeneous people" (Bushnell, pp. 209–303).

In fact, religious schools do not seem to have retarded what came to be called Americanization; to the contrary, they have provided a safe setting for millions of immigrant children to learn American ways without turning their backs on their families. In a study of Mexican-American children in San Antonio, Philip Lampe found that those who attended Catholic schools "were more likely to have non-Hispanic friends, were more willing to date and marry outside their own ethnic group, were more willing to identify with the WASP value system, showed significantly less prejudice against other ethnic groups, and were more willing to perform their civic duties" than their public school counterparts (Walch, p. 202).

As anxiety about Catholicism began to fade, other cultural differences came to be the primary concern. The immigrants arriving from southern and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seemed to many commentators to be of an inferior stock. As John R. Commons, a leading social scientist of the Progressive era wrote in 1907, "If in America our boasted freedom from the evils of social classes fails to be vindicated in the future, the reasons will be found in the immigration of races and classes incompetent to share in our democratic opportunities." After all, he pointed out, "race differences are established in the very blood and physical constitution. They are most difficult to eradicate, and they yield only to the slow processes of the centuries. Races may change their religions, their forms of government, their modes of industry, and their languages, but underneath all these changes they may continue the physical, mental, and moral capacities and incapacities which determine the real character of their religion, government, industry, and literature" (pp. 12, 7).

More optimistic observers insisted upon the capacity of the public school to transform the children of immigrants into "real Americans," and it was this impulse which led to several decades of emphasis upon Americanization through schools and other agencies of popular education like settlement houses and civic associations. Ellwood Cubberley, the enormously influential Stanford University professor, argued in 1909 that the highest mission of public education was "to assimilate and amalgamate those people as part of our American race, and to implant in their children, so far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government, and to awaken in them a reverence for our democratic institutions and for those things in our national life which we as a people hold to be of abiding worth" (Cremin, p. 68).

Although the "intelligence tests" conducted by the U.S. Army during World War I seemed to confirm the intellectual inferiority of Slavic, Jewish, and southern European immigrants, the findings reflected a generational phenomenon. Although immigrants in the early decades of the twentieth century had low levels of education compared to their native-born contemporaries, there was a "massive educational jump among the new Europeans in the cohort born between 1925 and 1935 in the concentration in professional jobs…. The analogous change for native whites of native parentage was much smaller" (Sollors, pp. 206, 329).

Immigrants and Language

The desire to preserve German language and culture had been one of the motivations behind the organization of Catholic and Lutheran parochial schools in the nineteenth century, and Polish, Bohemian, and other immigrant groups made efforts in the same direction. Public schools in some cities responded to this competition by offering classes designed to maintain and develop the languages that pupils spoke at home. In 1877 the superintendent of schools in San Francisco argued that public schools should begin offering French and German. Public schools in Chicago began offering German in confidence that "the number of private schools now to be found in every nook and cranny of the city will decrease, and the children of all nationalities will be assembled in the public schools, and thereby be radically Americanized" (Peterson, pp. 54–55). By the late 1880s, eight states had statutes authorizing bilingual instruction in public schools.

Such measures on the part of public authorities should not be construed as reflecting acceptance of bilingualism as a long-term educational goal; the mounting concern about how immigrants seemed to be building separate communities led by 1911 seventeen states to require that English be the sole language of instruction at the elementary level in public schools. The anti-German sentiment of World War I led twenty-one states to add such a requirement for private schools as well–a requirement that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in Meyer v. State of Nebraska in 1923.

The supposed failure of immigrants and their children to learn English is the basis for much concern about immigration and about bilingual education in the early twenty-first century. In fact, there is no reason to believe that current immigrants, any more than those in the past, will seek or be able to persuade their children to remain linguistically separate. Two leading supporters of bilingual education concede that "the United States is, at the societal level, staunchly monolingual. Legislating monolingualism as a requirement for citizenship could hardly have been more successful in creating a monolingual society than have been the unofficial economic and social forces at work." Among immigrant minority groups, "only the old folks, the very young, and the recent arrivals, in general, speak these other languages; the school children and young adults have often switched to 'dominance' in English" (Snow and Hakuta, p. 385). The continuing use of Spanish in California has not slowed the rate of shift to English as the primary language for individuals of Hispanic descent; while "in most areas of the United States approximately 70 percent of the native born currently are adopting English as their usual language," the rate is 85 percent in California (Veltman, p. 66).

It is sometimes suggested that the heavy concentrations of Hispanics constitutes an exception to the usual pattern of language shift, but this seems to reflect mostly the language use of newcomers. A 1973 study by Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut in Los Angeles found that, among third-generation Mexican-American women, 4 percent spoke only Spanish at home, and 84 percent only English. The transition to English among men was even more rapid.

Because of this pattern of language loss, some argue that the public schools have an obligation to help maintain minority languages and cultures. It would be more accurate to say that, while this policy option certainly could be justified on educational grounds, it is not a legal requirement. In no case have the courts found a legal right to public support in maintaining a group's identity or language as a remedy of past discrimination.

Even if language maintenance were to be accepted as an educational goal, there is little reason to believe that even full-time bilingual classes would have the effect of maintaining the active use of minority languages, unless these languages were strongly supported outside the school.

Immigrant parents are especially likely to question language-maintenance efforts in schools if they believe there is any chance this will limit their children's acquisition of the majority language that they themselves cannot teach their children well. Mexican-American parents surveyed by the Educational Testing Service in 1987 supported bilingual education and said it was important that their children speak Spanish well, but rejected instruction in Spanish nearly four to one if it would take away from learning English. In a 1998 survey, the foundation Public Agenda posed the question: "With students who are new immigrants, which is more important for the public schools to do? Teach them English as quickly as possible, even if this means they fall behind in other subjects, or teach them other subjects in their native language, even if this means it takes them longer to learn English?" Foreign-born parents favored "English as quickly as possible" by 75 percent to 21 percent, while Hispanic parents supported that option by 66 percent to 30 percent.

Educating the Children of Immigrants

No special arrangements were made for immigrant pupils through most of the nineteenth century, apart from being in a public school classroom, with what was then a strong emphasis upon basic skills and upon patriotism and civic morality. In some cases, indeed, they were not allowed to attend school with native children. Children of Chinese immigrants were segregated by law in a number of states. The California legislature enacted a requirement during its 1859–1860 session that "Negroes, Mongolians, and Indians, shall not be admitted into the public schools." The legislature, however, did allow local school boards to establish separate schools for such children; this segregation was reaffirmed in the school code adopted ten years later.

Such discrimination was not confined to California. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gong Lumv. Rice (1927) that school officials in Mississippi could exclude a Chinese-American child from the local "white" school. Martha Lum had "the right to attend and enjoy the privileges of a common school education in a colored school" or her father could send her to a private school at his own expense.

Although persons of Mexican descent were considered "white" under state laws requiring school segregation of blacks, they were often segregated by local practices. Local practices included drawing school attendance lines to correspond with residential segregation–and the segregation already existing within schools–and assigning all Mexican-American children automatically to the lowest instructional track, according to Guadalupe Salinas's 1971 study. As a result of such practices, "in 1931, 85 per cent of California schools surveyed by the state government reported segregating Mexican students either in separate classrooms or in separate schools…. By 1930, 90 per cent of the schools in Texas were racially segregated" (Donato, Menchaca, and Valencia, p. 35).

Separation was not always permanent, or motivated by distaste for the immigrant. Special reception classes to teach essential language skills in an otherwise unmodified school program were considered an especially progressive measure in the period of heaviest immigration to the United States in the early twentieth century. So-called steamer classes were provided in many cities for children newly arrived "off the boat" from Europe. In Massachusetts alone, twenty-six cities and towns reported providing such classes in 1914. The Boston school superintendent asserted that "there is general agreement in the practice of progressive communities in grouping older immigrant children in special classes for intensive work in English, in order that they may acquire the common tongue as a tool for work through which they can be advanced rapidly to classes of children of their own age" (Thompson, p. 118).

Special language support did not become a right until the Supreme Court's 1974 decision in Lau v. Nichols. This decision stated that San Francisco was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to provide programs that met the needs of several thousand pupils of Chinese ancestry who did not speak English. The implication of the decision was that no violation would have been found if all of the pupils in question had participated in supplemental English instruction (ESL), as did about a thousand others. The court left the method of meeting this obligation to the discretion of school districts. "Teaching English to the students of Chinese ancestry who do not speak the [English] language is one choice. Giving instructions to this group in Chinese is another. There may be others." The court took care to point out that it would not be appropriate to separate minority children more than was required by their educational needs, citing an earlier federal government regulation specifying that any ability grouping or tracking system employed by the school system to deal with the special language skill needs of national origin, minority children must be designed to meet such language skill needs as soon as possible and must not operate as an educational dead-end or permanent track.

In retrospect, however, it seems almost in evitable that such a targeted program would develop a momentum of its own and that those educators who made it their specialty would discover an everincreasing need for what only they could provide, and ever new reasons not to integrate language minority children into the mainstream. The "Lau remedies" issued in draft form subsequently by the federal government, influenced by bilingual education advocates, leaned heavily toward requiring use of the home language for instruction in a separate program, so-called transitional bilingual education. School administrators had every reason to believe that they were not only permitted but required to educate language minority pupils separately, at least for whatever period of time was required to bring them up to speed in English. The argument, by some linguists and minority language advocates, that the best way to learn English was through a number of years (five to seven years is the figure most commonly used) of a bilingual program provided a strong rationale for extending this period of separation.

Much conflicting research exists on the issue of whether children should first be instructed through their home language if that is not the language of their continuing education. Fortunately, a very complete review of more than thirty years of studies was carried out on behalf of the National Research Council. "It is clear," the experts note,

that many children first learn to read in a second language without serious negative consequences. These include children in early-immersion, two-way, and English as a second language (ESL)-based programs in North America, as well as those in formerly colonial countries that have maintained the official language [of the colonizer] as the medium of instruction, immigrant children in Israel, children whose parents opt for elite international schools, and many others…. The high literacy achievement of Spanish-speaking children in English-medium Success for All schools…that feature carefully-designed direct literacy instruction suggests that even children from low-literacy homes can learn to read in a second language if the risk associated with poor instruction is eliminated. (August and Hakuta, p. 60)

Later in the report, indeed, Diane August and Kenji Hukuta conclude candidly that "we do not yet know whether there will be long-term advantages or disadvantages to initial literacy instruction in the primary language versus English, given a very high-quality program of known effectiveness in both cases" (p.177). This would seem to argue for allowing the individual school to adopt whatever method produces satisfactory results.

Bilingual education was developed initially not as a remedial program but as an enrichment of the education of middle-class children, responding to demands of a relatively high-status refugee group that included many teachers, the Cubans who fled to Miami from the Castro regime in the early 1960s. According to James Crawford, this group, expecting to return to Cuba, was strongly motivated to maintain Spanish. The Dade County school system launched the first experiment in bilingual education at the Coral Way School. This was an unabashed Spanish-maintenance program for Cuban children and at the same time a Spanish immersion program for Anglo children. The goal was fluency in both languages for both groups.

Transitional bilingual education (TBE) programs have a different goal: they provide support in the home language while the pupil becomes proficient in English. TBE has been provided by hundreds of local school systems as a result of the requirements of state laws (the first was enacted in Massachusetts in 1971) or as a means of complying with the requirements of the 1974 Lau v. Nichols case. While federal law leaves it up to local education officials to determine how to overcome language barriers, a strong encouragement has been given to bilingual programs by federal funding that supports "educational programs using bilingual education practices, techniques and methods."

Pupils are assigned to TBE programs on the basis of an assessment that they are unable to perform ordinary class-work in English and speak another language at home. Pupils stay in these separate classes typically for three years, though many remain longer and advocates argue that five to seven years would be preferable. "Late-exit" bilingual programs, with an explicit intention of maintaining and developing the home language while English is learned, are less common.

A 1980 survey found that local school districts in thirty-eight of the fifty states provided TBE for Spanish-speaking youngsters, in twenty states they did so for Vietnamese children, in twelve for Korean youngsters, in ten for French-speaking children, and in nine for speakers of Greek. Half the states had laws that mandated or permitted bilingual instruction as needed–or were in the process of enacting such legislation–and the other half did not seem to have significant enrollments of affected students. The 1980s were probably the high-water mark of this approach to educating the children of immigrants.

California adopted a mandate of bilingual and "bicultural" education in 1976, requiring school districts with more than fifty pupils of limited proficiency in English to develop and implement district master plans. This law was not reenacted in 1987, but most large school systems continued to implement bilingual programs until the referendum (Proposition 227) organized by Ron Unz. In June 1998 California voters decisively mandated that the children of immigrants be given one year of "structured immersion" in English before mainstreaming into regular classes, unless a sufficient number of parents petitioned for a bilingual class.

Voters in Arizona followed the California example and, as of 2001, similar efforts are under way in Colorado and Massachusetts. Even liberal newspapers like the New York Times have begun to criticize bilingual programs, which face new demands for accountability and results. The alternative offered is no longer "sink-or-swim," but carefully designed programs that focus (like those in other countries with large numbers of immigrants) on developing an initial proficiency in English so that the pupil can as soon as possible be placed with classmates for whom that is the first language and with whom he will communicate naturally and so become more and more proficient.

It should be noted that proficiency in a language other than that of the school is by no means of itself a barrier to success in school, and may indeed be associated (whether as cause or effect) with academic achievement, provided that the pupil is also proficient in the school language. A study conducted by the Educational Testing Service in conjunction with the National Assessment of Educational Progress concluded that "whether or not one comes from a home where a second language [that is, other than English] is frequently spoken is not the critical issue, but rather the central question is whether or not one is competent in English" (Baratz-Snowden et al., p. iii).

In the early twenty-first century American education seems to be entering a period in which a variety of approaches to the education of immigrant children will be employed, based upon local judgments about what will work best and what parents want; a new emphasis on accountability for results will prevent schools from sliding back into the old complacency about whether immigrant students learn or not.


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The social and cultural effects of immigration have been in the forefront of policy debate a number of times in U.S. history (and in that of Canada and of Australia) but it is a largely unfamiliar and thus all the more difficult question in Europe. As the late Willem Fase noted, "Western Europe quickly moves in the direction of immigration countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia" but there is "cross national variation in social and educational provisions for ethnic minority groups" (p. 7). The focus here will be upon the members of the European Union and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Ethnicity and its consequences are among the most difficult and potentially destabilizing political issues in most of the Western democracies, as well as in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and the developing nations. In recent years, commentators in Germany, France, Australia, and elsewhere have ranked immigration as the leading "hot button" topic in political discourse. The education of the children of immigrants is a challenge that professionals in the United States have faced for many years, but it is a relatively recent concern in Europe.

Certain countries, such as Australia, Canada, the United States, and South Africa, have long welcomed immigrants, though often with restrictions based upon origin, race, or skills. Migrant workers have been moving, and often settling, within Europe for centuries. Since World War II, Western Europe has absorbed millions of "guest workers," immigrants from former colonies who became permanent residents and brought their families; and more recently, millions of migrants from Eastern Europe. Even countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece that were long exporters of their citizens to other countries now find themselves seeking to integrate hundreds of thousands of immigrants from North Africa, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. Most European cities now have areas inhabited mostly by immigrant families.

Exceptional groups aside, the educational outcomes of immigrant children are generally inferior to those of native children. This has led to high rates of grade-retention and to frequent failure of students to obtain qualifications for technical or university education. Immigrant children are also often concentrated in schools that, in some cases, enroll no native pupils at all. Policy responses have included "reception classes" for pupils who are not proficient in the language of the school, supplemental programs to support home language and culture, and the designation of special zones or schools that receive additional funding to permit a more favorable pupil—teacher ratio and other supports. In a few cases that have not been widely copied, authorities have provided bilingual education or made efforts to desegregate schools.

Reception Classes

Typically, children of immigrant parents who are older than primary school age when they arrive are placed in reception classes for a year, where they are given an intensive program in the language of the school as well as orientation to life in the host society. In France, for example, it is assumed that young immigrant children should be treated like and integrated with French children of the same age; should learn numbers, colors, and reading in French; and should receive supplemental help only as individually needed, just as a child from a French-speaking home would. Special reception programs are regarded as an essential transitional measure only for pupils who start French schools at ages when their classmates would already be well advanced in their studies.

Some classes have a teacher who speaks the language of most of the children, as well as a native teacher. The role of the former is to assist with explanations and not to instruct in academic subjects through the home language; the goal is to prepare pupils as quickly as possible for participation in a regular class.

Supplemental Home Language and Culture Programs

In the countries under consideration some arrangement has been made to enable immigrant children to continue to develop their home language and to gain some knowledge of the culture of the country from which their parents came. Some of these programs are funded by the governments of the sending countries or by ethnic organizations, but many are supported by the educational system of the host society. Typically, pupils attend these classes on a voluntary basis for several hours per week, so arranged as not to conflict with regular academic instruction.

Supplemental language programs should not be confused with "bilingual education" (BE) as it is practiced in the United States. The intent is not, as in BE, to develop initial literacy in the home language or to teach the academic subjects through that language, but rather to enable immigrant children to retain some link with the homeland and the culture of their families.

Extra Resources for Immigrant Pupils

A number of efforts have been made to increase the effectiveness of the schooling provided to children from immigrant families by devoting additional resources to their schools. France has a system of "priority educational zones" (ZEPs) that receive additional support and attention.

Bilingual Education

Although instruction provided in two languages is common in some areas with linguistically mixed native populations, such as Catalonia in Spain, Fries-land in the Netherlands, Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, and Wales, bilingual education has seldom been provided for the children of immigrants. The exceptions include some programs for Finnish immigrants in Sweden and experimental classes in other countries. The results have not been sufficiently positive to encourage wide-scale adoption of this approach.

School Desegregation

Only a few scattered attempts have been made in Western Europe to ensure that ethnic minority children are not concentrated in certain schools. It has frequently been pointed out that the growing tendency toward segregation of the children of immigrants has a negative effect upon their opportunities to learn the language of the school and reduces the motivation of foreign pupils and their parents to take seriously schooling in which no native pupils participate.

One German community that made a determined and comprehensive effort to promote ethnic integration is Krefeld in North Rhine/Westphalia. While the "Krefeld Model" was most notable for its stress upon pedagogical integration, it also included an element of deliberate assignment of pupils to create the preconditions for successful integration. Similar efforts have been made in Gouda and Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and in a number of cities of Flanders in Belgium.


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