American Dreamers Learn the Lingo

Amid a battle over bilingual education, a special school in L.A. welcomes immigrant children

AFTER a 45-minute ride from the grime and graffiti of the inner city, a motley group of kids pour out of yellow school buses and into the Bellagio Newcomer School. The building, set on a steep hill amid the posh homes of Bel Air, serves as a haven for immigrant children in their first year at a United States school.

The original elementary school on this site was closed for four years because of declining enrollment. But the Los Angeles Unified School District reopened it last year as one educational solution for its growing numbers of non-English-speaking children. With tens of thousands of immigrant families - mostly from Mexico and Central America - flooding southern California, the state has a record number of students who don't speak English.

``We smile a lot,'' says principal Juliette Thompson as she explains the challenges of communicating with students who know little English. ``We put our arms around them. We provide a nurturing environment for them.''

Newly arrived parents of children entering grades 4 through 8 can choose to send their students here for one year. After that, the youngsters are transferred to their own neighborhood school.

But this site and a high school, which each host 450 students, cannot come close to serving the district's 213,000 ``limited-English-proficient'' (LEP) students, a term for students who need help with English.

The steady influx of immigrants to California makes the state a hotbed for the 20-year-old debate about bilingual education - the practice of teaching students in their native tongue until they have mastered English.

Close to 90 languages are spoken by students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the US. A concentration of students who speak the same language triggers district efforts to provide instruction in that language. Besides English and Spanish, classes are taught in Korean, Armenian, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Farsi, and Cambodian.

In New York's public schools, students receive instruction in such languages as Hebrew, Japanese, Greek, French, Italian, Russian, and Haitian Creole. In Oklahoma, students are taught in Cherokee, and Arizona offers instruction in Navajo.

People on both sides of this war of words call themselves ``child advocates.'' These immigrant children are the dreamers of the much-hailed American dream. The question is how best to make their dreams come true.

Proponents of bilingual education say that teaching non-English-speaking students in their native language is the only way to provide proper access to the curriculum.

``With the bilingual program, the kids are not losing time until they learn English in order to learn math, and social studies, and science,'' says Amelia McKenna, assistant superintendent of bilingual instruction for the L.A. school district. ``They are learning those subjects in the language that they understand at the same time that they are learning English.''

Bilingual education's opponents support teaching immigrant children in English as much as possible, as soon as possible. ``Too many children are in segregated classrooms and are learning almost entirely in their native language - with maybe 45 minutes a day of English-as-a-second-language,'' says Barbara Caze, Western regional director of U.S. English, a leader in the opposition to bilingual education.

California has the most non-English-speaking students. But nationwide, the number of students designated as limited-English-proficient is multiplying. In the past decade, the percentage of LEP students in the Los Angeles schools has more than doubled.

Although almost 80 percent of students at Bellagio are native Spanish-speakers, 13 other languages - from Burmese to Vietnamese - are spoken by at least one student. Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and Armenian are the most prevalent.

The 350 Spanish-speaking students receive bilingual instruction in English and Spanish by specially trained teachers. The remaining students are enrolled in the English Language Development Program (ELDP). In these three classrooms, teachers trained to instruct non-native speakers tackle the challenge of using English to instruct students with varying levels of language proficiency.

Elito Santarina, who teaches in this program, is fluent in English, Spanish, and Filipino and can translate for students who understand those languages. But his class includes seventh and eighth graders who speak six different languages as their primary tongue. The situation requires ``creativity,'' Mr. Santarina says.

IDEALLY, advocates of bilingual education say, all students would be taught in their own language until they gained fluency in English. Teaching non-native English speakers in English is like ``asking children to multiply and divide when they don't even know their numbers,'' says Ms. Thompson, who was a bilingual teacher for six years. But a shortage of bilingual teachers makes it impossible to provide all LEP students with bilingual instruction.

Several years ago, the district started offering up to $5,000 in bonuses for state-certified bilingual teachers. This incentive program has lured many bilingual teachers from other districts.

Nonetheless, the lack of qualified teachers puts a pinch on bilingual programs. Many schools rely on teaching assistants and volunteers to fill in the gaps.

Gabriela Mancia, a seventh grader at Bellagio, came to Los Angeles from Mexico last May. Using her teacher as an interpreter, Gabriela says she likes school here better than she did in Mexico. When asked if she is looking forward to going to a school in her own neighborhood next year, she looks surprised, saying she thought she'd stay here another year.

Gabriela is fortunate to have even this one year at the newcomer school. Only a small percentage of all immigrant students have the chance to ease into life at an American school. ``They don't have to be embarrassed here,'' says principal Thompson. ``Everyone is in the same boat.''

DURING the year at Bellagio, students absorb important cultural lessons intended to help them fit in once they transfer to another school.

Up a hill from the school buildings, a group of students on the playground are learning how to dribble a basketball. ``We teach them the games other kids aren't going to stop and teach them,'' Thompson says.

The district is committed to the success of its two newcomer schools and hopes to open more in the future. In addition, seven model bilingual-education schools have been created. While students attending these schools flourish, non-English speaking youngsters languish in many of the district's other schools, say some teachers.

Sally Peterson, a teacher at Glenwood Elementary School, founded Learning English Advocates Drive (LEAD) four years ago. The national group of 20,000 teachers and other citizens is working to expose ``problems and abuses'' in the current bilingual approach.

``What most of us are doing in the school district is following a bilingual program that has serious flaws in it,'' Ms. Peterson says. ``It's focus is on teaching Spanish to the extent that [the students] are not exiting the program.''

What was intended to be a short-term, two-year program extends into a ``long-term Spanish maintenance program,'' Peterson says. ``I originally bought the whole thing,'' she says of bilingual education. ``But the intent of bilingual education is to develop English fluency. Somewhere along the line this district has veered from that course....''

Non-English-speaking students enrolled in a bilingual program in kindergarten usually make the transition to an all-English program by the fourth or fifth grade, says district official McKenna. But Peterson suggests that the district tries to keep as many students in the bilingual program as possible to continue receiving annual state and federal subsidies of about $350 per student.

``Hogwash,'' counters McKenna. ``Why would the district purposely not want teachers to teach children English? Our major purpose ... is to provide students access to the curriculum and access to a life that they deserve in our society.''

Meanwhile, despite the swirling debate, Jesus, a fourth-grader at Bellagio Newcomer School, is determined to learn English. When his teacher holds up a picture of a tiger and asks Jesus about it, the little boy answers proudly, ``That tiger is BIG.''

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