Thousands of junior and senior high students who are trying to learn English are stuck in unchallenging and remedial classes and are prevented from enrolling in basic courses they need to graduate, according to a scathing state audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s bilingual education program.

Alarmed by a six-year trend in the giant district’s failure to educate many secondary school students with English language deficiencies, acting state Supt. of Public Instruction William D. Dawson has threatened to withhold nearly $60 million for bilingual education if the district does not show dramatic improvements by December.

“There is no reason why better results are not being achieved,” Dawson said. “We don’t want to obstruct those funds, but we want to get results. . . . It seemed very clear to me that the plans that have been made in the past simply are not being executed in the classroom.”

In response to the threat — which Dawson leveled at a meeting he called in Sacramento with Supt. Sid Thompson and school board President Leticia Quezada — the district has embarked on an ambitious plan to correct the problems.

Thompson vowed to make bilingual education for the district’s 83,500 secondary school students who lack English fluency “my top instructional priority.” Earlier this week, he ordered principals to immediately begin assessing their schools’ performance.

Quezada, a leading supporter of the district’s bilingual education plan, said that she was shocked to hear about the magnitude of the problem from state auditors, who first warned the district about the issues in 1987.

“This is a gross neglect of a significant population of students,” Quezada said, adding that the results of two previous audits had never been brought to the school board. “I think the greatest message we can send out is that this neglect will not be allowed to exist anymore.”

What was particularly embarrassing for the district, Quezada said, was that school officials selected the 83 schools that auditors visited last spring as examples of campuses with good bilingual programs.

District officials and bilingual education critics said the audit results are likely to fuel the emotional debate that surrounds the issue of how to best teach students who do not speak English.

State policy and the district’s master plan call for students to be taught core classes, such as math and science, in their native language until they become proficient enough in English to succeed in regular classes.

“I think this clearly shows that the district is committed to a bilingual education policy that does not work,” said Sally Petersen, a Los Angeles teacher and president of Learning English Advocates Drive, which advocates teaching students only in English. “We have a tragic situation here.”

The audit by a team of 53 bilingual education experts found that:

* Although the district has a commendable plan for bilingual education on paper, there are woefully few qualified teachers and inadequate resources to carry out its goals in the classroom. More than 75% of the schools surveyed lacked qualified staff.

* More than half the schools do not provide English language courses appropriate for a student’s proficiency level. Across the board, students with advanced English skills were enrolled in unchallenging classes.

* In some schools, significant numbers of students cannot enroll in more challenging courses conducted in English because they have not been prepared to take the required tests to show their proficiency level. The report covered most of the 640 limited-English speakers at Bell High School, 377 students at Polytechnic High School and 318 at Van Nuys High School.

* Special state and federal funds to provide extra resources for bilingual youths were inappropriately spent at some schools. Although state auditors did not find any evidence of fraud, 17 schools spent their special funds on items and services not approved by the government.

* School site officials generally do not understand existing district, state and federal policies and the district’s own bilingual education policies are not being enforced.

“We found plenty of cases where students were not really in high school. They were in the building, but they were not getting an education,” said Norm Gold, the state Department of Education’s director of bilingual education compliance. “They would take a couple of classes (in English as a second language) and go to PE (physical education). Maybe they would take one elective, a basic math class and possibly not understand any of it.”

In a typical secondary school classroom of limited-English speakers, Gold said, auditors found English books on the shelves and a monolingual teacher without a bilingual aide to translate material in the students’ native language.

“Children who might have skills in algebra and geometry are in basic math classes,” he said. “Their academic progress is restricted only because they don’t speak English well enough.”

The audit praised the district’s elementary program for bilingual education, which is generally doing a far better job of serving students. Part of the reason, Gold and district officials said, is that it is easier to find bilingual teachers at the elementary level. Also, the district has in the past devoted more attention to its youngest students who lack English fluency. State officials also noted “exemplary efforts” in the district to involve elementary school parents on bilingual education advisory committees.

The audit found numerous bright spots where dedicated teachers and administrators were struggling against the lack of resources to deliver quality bilingual education. One middle school, George Ellery Hale in Woodland Hills, was in perfect compliance with all state codes.

The mammoth district holds a unique position in the state, with nearly 280,000 limited-English-speaking students, about 40% of its enrollment. The numbers of these students skyrocketed during the 1980s as immigrants surged to Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles Unified has the biggest challenge of any district in the state, if not the nation, in terms of improving the linguistic skills of its student body,” said Assistant Supt. Amelia McKenna, who has been charged with implementing a fast-paced, two-year plan to improve the secondary bilingual education. “There is no doubt that the work ahead of us is some of the most difficult work in the country on this issue.”

The district has long suffered from a severe shortage of bilingual teachers, a problem that has worsened this year. Between 650 and 700 teachers left the system after a grueling year of labor strife and a 10% pay cut, creating an unprecedented number of vacancies. About 150 of the vacancies are for bilingual teachers at all levels.

The district’s efforts to improve services for limited-English students center on teacher training. The goal is to identify experts throughout the district who will train administrators and teacher representatives at every secondary school on the latest methods to help limited-English speakers.

McKenna said she hopes the audit will not fuel a divisive battle over the district’s existing bilingual education policy, saying it will only divert attention away from improving student achievement.

“This must be viewed as the school district taking on a challenge and doing it in the spirit of reform,” McKenna said.

Times staff writer Brian Ballou contributed to this story.

Improving Bilingual Education

In response to a highly critical state audit, the Los Angeles Unified School District has embarked on an ambitious, two-year plan to improve bilingual education in middle and high schools. Here are highlights of the state-ordered

* All of the district’s 49 senior high schools and 80 middle schools must evaluate the needs of limited-English-speaking students by December and devise a plan to ensure that the schools meet state mandates.

* The district will establish a bilingual education academy. Administrators will be required to receive training on new techniques to better serve limited-English speakers. Representative teachers from every school will be required to attend the academy once a month and share what they learn with their colleagues.

* Recruitment of bilingual teachers will be stepped up and hiring will be increased by February. The number of new hires has not been specified.

* A bilingual education expert will be assigned to assist each school and monitor progress.

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