Alan Mendelsohn, a counselor at Evans Community Adult School in downtown Los Angeles, is not joking when he says he can say “no more classes” in four languages. It is a message he has had to deliver repeatedly since school opened two weeks ago.
This year, Evans and other adult schools up and down the state have been flooded with desperate pleas from thousands of hopeful students — primarily recent immigrants — who want to enroll in classes to learn English.
In the Los Angeles school district alone, officials estimate that 40,000 adults will be turned away from English as a second language (ESL) classes, twice the number rejected last year. The demand for classes is occurring not only downtown but in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, the Wilshire corridor and parts of South-Central Los Angeles that have attracted large numbers of non-English-speaking immigrants in the last few years.
In Orange County, education officials said most immigrants seeking English classes are able to find them. But Garden Grove Unified School District reported that it had about 250 adults on a waiting list for night ESL courses, even though the district expanded its ESL offerings this year.
In Santa Ana, Rancho Santiago College officials said that, while no figures were immediately available, ESL adult-education classes quickly filled up this year and some adults were unable to get into the courses this fall.
The surge in demand occurs against the backdrop of Proposition 63, which would declare English to be the state’s official language and is widely regarded as an anti-immigrant measure intended to reduce support of bilingual programs and force newcomers to learn English.
As the waiting lists suggest, and conversations with the ESL students confirm, many immigrants already have all the incentive they need to learn English. All they want is a seat in a classroom. For most of them, adult schools, which charge no tuition and operate during the early morning and evening hours that are convenient for people who work full-time, provide the best opportunities.
However, from large urban districts such as Los Angeles to small suburban districts, such as Alhambra in the San Gabriel Valley, officials are reporting long waiting lists for adult English programs — and little hope that the thousands of students without classes this year can be accommodated.
“It’s clearly a real pressing need throughout the state,” said David W. Gordon, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the state Department of Education. According to a recent department survey, 131 out of 228 school districts have reported that they have more students than they can handle.
Limited by Law
A state law in effect since 1979 limits the growth of adult ESL programs to 2% a year. According to Gordon, the 2% cap was instituted to halt the spread of non-academic, non-credit adult courses that proliferated in the 1970s. “But what wasn’t anticipated,” the state official said, “was the tremendous need for ESL programs that we are seeing now.”
A bill awaiting the governor’s signature would increase financing of adult ESL programs slightly; it proposes spending $600,000 on a variety of adult education needs, including English classes. Gordon predicted, however, that the bill would barely make a dent in the problem. Based on current projections, the state Department of Education plans to request an additional $21 million for expansion of adult ESL courses in 1988, but it is uncertain whether the money will be approved.
At Belmont Community Adult School near downtown Los Angeles, 1,500 people were turned away when the approximately 7,000 spaces for ESL students available this year were filled within hours after the opening of school. “It was wild,” said ESL counselor Juan Jimenez, recalling the first night. “People were desperate to get in. It was embarrassing to tell them we had no room.”
One of the lucky ones was Marina Torres, 24, who immigrated from El Salvador a year ago. An employee in a print shop in Vernon, Torres earns $3.85 an hour — slightly more than the minimum wage. She wants to learn English, she said through an interpreter, because she wants a better-paying job, the goal cited most frequently by ESL students. “I want a career that will better my life. People like me,” Torres said, “have a great desire to learn English.”
The urge to acquire English was echoed by Yuk Fou Chan So, 61, who left Hong Kong four years ago and now lives in Monterey Park, where almost half of the population is Asian — most of them recent immigrants — and where the battle over the English-only initiative has been particularly heated. Like most of her classmates in a crowded bilingual class at Evans, she made repeated attempts to enroll in the English program at Evans before finally succeeding this year.
“If you don’t know English,” So said through an interpreter, “you can’t function. I can’t communicate with my grandchildren. Even in Chinatown, you have to have English or you can’t do anything. Each step is a barrier.” She said she feels terrible when a stranger addresses her in English and she cannot understand what is being said. “I fear for my safety if I can’t respond.”
On Tuesday at Evans, the line of prospective students began forming early in the morning and snaked out onto Sunset Boulevard. Evans, the district’s largest and only full-time adult campus, had only 50 openings left in morning classes, and about 300 people had lined up to fill them.
All of the hopeful students carried white or green cards, passed out on previous unsuccessful visits to the registration office, which assured them a shot at later openings. Although most of them were told they had to return another time, they at least were ahead of the approximately 200 adults in a separate line who would hear the bad news for the first time.