The track record for English acquisition among non-fluent speakers in the Los Angeles Unified School District improved markedly during the last year, even as the number of such students continued to climb.
District statistics released Monday indicate that more than 24,000 students were transferred out of bilingual program classes and into mainstream classes in 1994-95 — representing 8.4% of those who were not fluent the year before. This is an improvement of more than 2 percentage points over the previous year.
School officials attributed students’ improved performance on the battery of fluency tests to more training for teachers and an increased emphasis on moving children through the bilingual program faster.
“This is something we can hang our hat on,” said Amelia McKenna, assistant superintendent of instruction. “I think it’s telling us that what we are doing works.”
The rate of transferring bilingual program students out of the special classes has increased in each of the last three years. It compares favorably with the statewide transfer record, which last year hovered near 7%.
Los Angeles Unified’s gains are important statewide because more than one-quarter of California’s non-fluent English speakers attend public schools here. The district had about 292,000 non-fluent students last year, up from 289,000 the year before.
And the results take on added significance in a year when political pressure is mounting to abandon instruction in students’ native languages. Since 1988, Los Angeles Unified has favored starting non-fluent students in their own language, usually Spanish, and then gradually increasing their English instruction.
Bilingual program critics, however, take credit for any improvements, saying their vocal opposition forced the district to scrutinize its programs. And they question how much the new statistics really mean.
“It just shows that the heat is on (the district),” said Sally Peterson, a kindergarten teacher at Glenwood Elementary in the San Fernando Valley who heads Learning English Advocates Drive, an anti-native language group.
Peterson noted that the district provided no comparisons for the relative success of native-language classes taught primarily in Spanish versus a small percentage of English- immersion approaches favored by Peterson and others. District staff said those figures had not been computed.
“They only release statistics that suit them,” Peterson said.
In fact, a Times review found that transfer rates at five of the six schools that have followed the strictest native-language approach the longest fell below the districtwide rate. The campuses are known as Eastman Model schools, because the method of gradual introduction of English was first established at Eastman Elementary in East Los Angeles.
At the only Eastman school that exceeded the district rate — Wilmington Park Elementary in Wilmington — Principal Nora Armenta credited “cohesive teamwork” between schools and parents.
“Bilingual programs are only as good and effective as the principal, the teachers and the parents at that school,” she said.
Los Angeles Unified administrators also acknowledge that there is still work to be done, some of it in the classroom, some in the bureaucracy — to develop more sophisticated statistical analyses.
The statistics released Monday showed that performance throughout the district was wildly uneven, with some of the areas that have the highest non-English-speaking enrollment — such as much of the Eastside and Southeast Los Angeles — reporting rates far below the district average.
At most of the regional school groups — known as clusters — that had the highest transfer rates, non-fluent students make up less than half of the student body. At many of those groups falling toward the bottom, two in three students spoke little or no English.
Other complicating factors include student transiency and preparation, which McKenna said also vary broadly from one part of the district to another.
“It may be some (schools) are getting more students who are illiterate . . . who need more time before they are ready (to learn in English),” she said.
Even the reasons for the improvement were a matter of some debate.
District officials pegged it to higher bilingual-program goals set last year by Supt. Sid Thompson as part of an effort to raise standards in several lagging areas.
But they acknowledged that the two-year trend also had something to do with a critical state review of Los Angeles Unified’s bilingual middle school programs in 1993.
At that time, the state threatened to withhold funding unless Los Angeles Unified improved its offerings for secondary students. To meet the state requirements, the district created a special training program for all middle school and high school teachers.
The goals to improve transfer rates were set by the individual school clusters, so that some of those who improved the most not only failed to meet their own goals, but were eclipsed in the district’s own ranking system by clusters with more moderate gains.
Thompson said that, for next year, a districtwide target will be set, which will include the ultimate intent of moving all students out of bilingual programs within five years of their enrollment in the district.
The most stubborn obstacle to rapid movement of bilingual students, Thompson said, is enrichment money the district provides schools for each student designated non-fluent. Once that student is transferred to regular classes, that $274 a year is lost.
“Rather than reward a school for good work, they lose funding?” asked board member Julie Korenstein.
At the state level, Supt. of Public Schools Delaine Eastin has vowed to find ways to offset that disincentive, including bonuses for districts that move their bilingual students faster.
Alternatives also are being considered by the district in its revision of the 1988 Bilingual Master Plan, the road map for bilingual programs here that became a standard for other districts to meet.
School board pressure to speed up that scheduled revision increased during the summer after the state Board of Education loosened up regulations governing bilingual education, offering districts more flexibility to try approaches other than native language.
Bilingual Education in L.A. Unified Schools
The Los Angeles Unified School District is transferring students out of special bilingual programs and into the mainstream at a growing rate. Administrators attribute the gains to closer attention to teaching methods and more success in hiring bilingual teachers. Critics say the numbers are still far too low.
Success of Bilingual Program Students
Number of students Number Transfer Year in bilingual program transferred rate 1995 292,264 24,340 8.4%
1994 289,103 17,537 6.3%
1993 279,899 12,870 4.6%
Sources: Los Angeles Unified School District for 1995 and 1994; California
Department of Education for 1993
Transfer Rate by High School Cluster*
School Cluster: Transfer Rate
Taft/Canoga Park/El Camino: 15.0%
Marshall/Eagle Rock/Franklin: 13.5%
Grant/Van Nuys: 12.7%
South Gate: 11.5%
San Pedro/Narbonne: 10.9%
Polytechnic/North Hollywood: 9.9%
Fairfax/Hollywood/Los Angeles: 7.8%
Manual Arts: 7.4%
San Fernando: 7.1%
Huntington Park: 4.2%
* Clusters include all elementary and middle schools that feed into the high schools named
Source: Los Angeles Unified School District