Bellevue's Challenge

In a school district where 42 different languages are spoken, great effort goes into making education work for everyone.

BELLEVUE—YESTERDAY, we told you about the difficulty school districts in Western Washington are having providing adequate instruction for the non-English-speaking children of immigrants. Today, we describe how one district is approaching the problem.

BELLEVUE – By the time he was 14, Ariel Hernandez was already bored with Sammamish High School. Teachers didn’t give him much attention, he says, and the only subject he liked was algebra. Finally, he quit. He re-enrolled but left again because his night job at a Safeway loading dock kept him up too late.

This year, neither Hernandez, now 16, nor the Bellevue School District is giving up on his education. He joined Proyecto Poder, a new second-chance program for Latino youths. “I don’t want to be working the same hard job for the rest of my life,” he says.

Today’s Bellevue is not the homogenous bedroom community it was a generation ago. Instead, the state’s fifth-largest city is home to families that speak at least 42 languages, and five of its schools have poverty rates that qualify them for federal Title I money.

A decadelong wave of immigrants confronts Bellevue with a challenge: Can it serve a more diverse population with the same top-flight education usually reserved for the wealthiest suburbs?

About 70 percent of the Bellevue district’s students are white, 19 percent are of Asian descent, 7 percent are Hispanic and 4 percent are African American. The most commonly spoken languages, other than English, are Spanish, various Chinese dialects, Russian, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean.

By no means are all the minority students poor. And though there are no reports of unusual tensions among racial groups, there are typical gaps in academic performance. The Latino dropout rate for the Class of ’98 was 64 percent, according to preliminary figures. Bellevue’s African-American eighth-graders lagged 30 points behind the district’s white students in math on standardized tests, and 20 points behind in reading.

Five years ago, city and school leaders engaged in a “scenario-building exercise” to consider the risk that without strong schools, Bellevue could be plagued by the urban problems that divide rich and poor.

“The idea was to make this a functioning city, and not to have it die off and the next Bellevue be in North Bend,” said Mike Coleman, the teachers union president.

The School Board’s answer was hiring new Superintendent Mike Riley from Baltimore County, Md., in 1996. His efforts to make schools more rigorous have attracted community support. Although 60 to 70 percent of Bellevue’s households do not have children in school, the last levy passed easily, and donors gave the Bellevue Schools Foundation $ 481,000 last year.

Other efforts that seem to be paying off: aggressive recruitment of minority teachers, strong English as a second language (ESL) classes, programs aimed specifically at improving reading and lowering dropout rates, a push to get more students into tougher classes and a districtwide effort to bring non-English-speaking families into the school community.

About 650 adults volunteer as tutors and mentors. A group called VIBES, the Volunteers In Bellevue’s Education System, sends 364 adults into the 11 neediest schools.

That’s the sort of interest and involvement with the schools that administrators hope can spread.

“There’s a part of Bellevue that has a sense of graciousness in wanting to have the whole community served well,” said School Board President Judy Bushnell. “It’s a look at what we want to do as a human race. As soon as people understand there are children that come in with a lot of baggage, they’re very open to helping.”

“We’re doing a lot right now, but I don’t think you’re going to see results for a few more years.”

Saving Latino students

In an attempt to cut the Latino dropout rate, the district this fall started Proyecto Poder, a drop-in center at the alternative Robinswood High School. Students under 21 can get bilingual tutoring and English practice mornings or evenings, or prepare for the high-school equivalency test.

Within a week of the Sept. 26 opening, 68 students signed up; most were returning dropouts but a few were still enrolled in regular high-school classes. Head teacher Herminia DeDamm, a longtime Crossroads resident, recruited by doorbelling and stopping teenagers in the street.

Her classroom is a relaxed place where siblings and babies visit. DeDamm kisses some students on the cheek as they leave. “Maybe they’re not going to go to the University of Washington,” she said. “But . . . a month ago, education was not important to them. Now it is.”

A districtwide Spanish-speaking parents group has been formed, and last month a Spanish-language hotline opened to help parents contact any district school.

Learning in a new language

In Bellevue, 1,240 students – one out of eight – participate in an ESL program.

The state expects them to be fluent in English in three years. Students exit ESL by reaching the 35th percentile on a standard test or by being nominated by teachers. In 1996-97, 24.1 percent of Bellevue’s students moved on, nearly double the state average of 13.2 percent.

An ESL class can mean penmanship and grammar drills, as at Sammamish, or playing with colored blocks in elementary schools to learn concepts such as over/under, and same/different. Phantom Lake teacher Roberta Lyon’s room is plastered with tags labeling north, south, east, west, and practically every object.

“The best ESL teaching is good teaching,” Lyon said. “There isn’t anything I do in here that wouldn’t be appropriate for a regular classroom.”

Raising the standards

Some of Bellevue’s reforms have no direct link to diversity. These include adding new advanced-placement courses, longer school days and world languages for sixth-graders. Curriculums are changing so that soon, students will be expected to take algebra by eighth grade.

The goal is to have all students taking tough courses by high school, while reversing a pattern of inequality: Only 7 percent of Latinos took upper-level science in fall 1996, compared with 19 percent of African Americans, 36 percent of whites and 39 percent of Asians.

Last winter, School Board members worried that talented children from minority or low-income families might be overlooked for the toughest courses if their parents didn’t know how to work the system, because families have the final say. In February, administrators held meetings in the district’s most common languages to explain this year’s major curriculum changes.

No more meetings are scheduled now, but schools supply translators and foreign-language newsletters where needed, Bushnell said.

Riley said there’s no reason why students from all backgrounds can’t achieve at the same levels.

“I don’t think I’ve met any teachers here that have a racist attitude, but I do think educators have what I would call enabling’ behaviors; they accept less than what the child could give.”

So far, the link between income and test scores in Bellevue differs little from other places. On the spring 1998 state tests, 54 percent of fourth-graders from the three poorest schools met the standard for reading. In 28 other metro-area schools with the same income profiles, 52 percent did so.

But there is some indication that minority children have been encouraged to stretch themselves rather than being funneled into remedial courses. For example, the African-American ninth-graders in algebra last year had averaged at the 51st percentile on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, while their white classmates’ average ranking was the 67th percentile.

Leveling the playing field

Riley’s policy decisions show his efforts to level the playing field. Last year, he instituted free full-day kindergarten for low-income families – but resisted a request from higher-income parents at Clyde Hill Elementary that they be allowed to spend their own money to hire additional teachers, a move Riley contended would create inequality between rich and poor schools.

And both individual schools and the district are working to make the schools more comfortable for the more diverse population. Phantom Lake Elementary, for example, hosts Mother’s Day massages, an international potluck and crafts nights. Shuttle vans are sent to pick up parents for school performances. Principal Jill McLeod figures that the more positive experiences with schools parents have, the more likely they are to monitor homework and consult with teachers.

Three schools include portable classrooms where adults can learn English or get connected with local governments and social services.

Meanwhile, the district has been working to increase its number of minority faculty. Despite a limited hiring pool, the proportion of nonwhite faculty rose from 10 percent to 14 percent in elementary schools from 1992 to 1997, and from 5 percent to 8 percent in high schools.

The demographic changes in Bellevue might be slowing. This year, the ESL enrollment dropped by 60 students. School officials say high rents and condo conversions are forcing lower-income residents out to cheaper suburbs such as Renton or Kent.

“I don’t think there’s anything healthy about that at all,” Riley said.

Mike Lindblom’s phone message number is 206-515-5631. His e-mail address is: ——————————- Bellevue science enrollment

Hispanic and African-American students are less likely than others to be in college-preparatory science courses such as chemistry, ,physics and advanced biology. In October 1996, these were teh percentages of students frome ach ethnic group taking those courses:

White 36% African-American 19% Hispanic 7% Asian 39%

Source: Bellevue School District ——————————- THE SEATTLE TIMES

Bilingual Students’ native languages

In Bellevue, 1,309 students were enrolled in the Transitional Bilingual Program to learn English last spring. Their native languages are:

Language No. of students

Ambaric (Ethiopia) 4 Arabic 8 Armenian 3 Bosnian 26 Bulgarian 8 Burmese 2 Cambodian 27 Chinese-Cantonese 72 Chinese-Chao Zhou dialect 5 Chinese-Mandarein 85 Chinese-Taiwanese 31 Czech 1 Danish 3 Farsi 14 French 8 German 3 Hebrew 1 Hindi 6 Hungarian 2 Indonesian 1 Japanese 140 Kazakh 1 Korean 88 Laotian 24 Laotian-Hmong 24 Latvian 1 Lithuanian 2 Persian 5 Tagalog (Philippines) 6 Polish 1 Portuguese 9 Punjabi 12 Romanian 43 Russian 148 Serbian 2 Spanish 338 Swedish 4 Thai 5 Turkish 2 Ukranian 20 Urdu 15 Vietnamese 96 Other 13

Source: Bellevue School District data as of March 6, 1998

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