How L.A. copes with its huge language challenge

The giant school district in Los Angeles has a gigantic language problem.

More than 100,000 of the children in this one school district speak a language other than English. Every day more English-as-a-second-language children arrive in the district.

The majority of these children are Hispanic and come from Spanish-speaking homes.

Last year, for example, Los Angeles School District officials tested the language ability of some 200,000 students. The purpose was to find those who would need instruction in their ''first'' language before teaching them a ''second'' language.

There are those who disagree with the Los Angeles position on bilingual education. There is a strong movement that favors teaching children only in English to hasten their development of basic skills.

Standard English, the argument goes, is what these students must speak here in the United States, and is the language for all schooling; hence, only teach them English.

But, L.A., following a California mandate, provides, as far as possible, instruction in the primary language of the pupil as well as English.

This means that some bilingual teaching takes place in more than 500 district schools.

I visited two schools in East Los Angeles -- both with nearly 100 percent Hispanic enrollments.

Sierra Vista Elementary has a core of 350 non-itinerant pupils, and is community-centered.

Frances Pedley has been teaching various grade levels here for more than a decade.

She says of herself, ''I feel like a second mother to some of my students because they stay with me for three years.'' Mrs. Pedley says she speaks enough Spanish to be able to explain some things to her pupils.

But she feels that those who have been through the primary grade program no longer need bilingual reinforcement.

But what about the pupils who enter the upper grades still speaking (reading/writing) onlu Spanish?

''Previously,'' she explained, ''when I was given a Spanish-speaking child I was told I had to do it any way I could. So I did.''

Today, she can ask for bilingual help.

But then she comments: ''The attitude of the teacher makes it possible. If the teacher doesn't slight the child because he doesn't understand English then he'll learn.''

Sierra Vista has classes for parents in the neighborhood to study English.

Also, advisory committees dealing with school affairs include not only school personnel but parents and community members.

Committee meetings are bilingual.

Most of the Sierra Vista graduates go to El Sereno Junior High, whose 2,200 students are nearly all Hispanic.

There are no bilingual history, math, or science classes here; just a few lessons in ''survival English.'' Special bilingual reading teachers give basic lessons to youngsters newly arrived from Mexico.

Those who do well at El Sereno are those who have spent several years at Sierra Vista.

The Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School, also in East Los Angeles, also in the heart of a Mexican-American community, also nearly 100 percent Hispanic, has a very active bilingual program.

Each floor of the handsome two-story building is one big room.

Learning centers are marked by colorful signs and separated by bookshelves and equipment.

Bright-eyed children move from one area to another first for small-group and then large-group instruction. A few work on their own at teaching machines.

Reading programs for every pupil in the school are set up on the computer.

As long as a pupil is in Robert F. Kennedy, his progress is closely monitored by a continuously updated computer program.

Only a handful of the teachers in the school are not bilingual in Spanish and English.

The two elementary schools I visited are on the ''rim'' of the L.A. School District, hence have not been included in the extensive busing program.

In both schools, teachers, visiting parents, community aides, and of course the pupils move quite easily from English to Spanish to English.

The ''giant'' problem doesn't seem so gigantic when the whole school is a learning center.

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