Lots of languages create divisions in California

Numbers: The influx of immigrants is making English unheard in many Golden State schools.

SCHOOLS MIRROR their communities. Baltimore’s communities are black and white, ebony and ivory, often bitterly divided within their common language — English.

Not at all like California.

Posted just inside the main door of Lakeview Elementary School in Oakland is a routine announcement having to do with registering for summer classes. It’s in five languages, none of which is English. Just a few whites attend Lakeview, and only about 3, 000 of Oakland’s 53,000 students are white. About half are black, down from 70 percent two decades ago.

“There’s room for everyone at Lakeview,” says Stanyan Vukovich, the principal and part-time teacher of 30 recent arrivals from Bosnia. Vukovich is the only adult at Lakeview who speaks their language.

A few miles away at Bella Vista Elementary, Principal Don Oliver puts out holiday greetings in four languages. “I can’t conduct a PTA meeting without three translators,” says Oliver. “The meetings take forever.”

Imagine Baltimore schools having to cope with a dozen major languages on top of the usual day-to-day crises. (And imagine teaching these children by immersing them exclusively in English, as California voters required last year in approving Proposition 227.) That’s what’s happening in Oakland, Los Angeles and other cities in a state that last year became the first in the nation to become “majority minority.”

Gary Yee, a former principal and now director of Oakland Mayor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown’s education Cabinet, has documented the rise and gradual decline of African-American and white influence in Oakland in the face of an influx of Asian and Hispanic children.

It’s a bitter decline for African-Americans because blacks never did realize the sustained political power their numbers warranted, and the charismatic Marcus Foster, first minority to head a large urban school district in California, was assassinated in 1973.

Yee notes that by 1990, the percentage of black students enrolled in Oakland private schools matched that of white students. Blacks became disenchanted with the public schools, too, and those who could afford to leave the city did so.

Ironically, the two largest groups with English in common — Caucasians and African-Americans — now have in common the need to protect their interests in the California polyglot. Proposition 227 is too new to determine if it is educationally sound, but one way to describe it is the last stand of English-speaking California.

In a state where 124 native languages are spoken in the schools, blacks and whites have more to be paranoid about than each other. So they don’t engage in silly arguments over the closing of schools on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The black-white tension that’s so much a part of daily life in Maryland has been replaced in the Golden State by black-Hispanic tension, white-Asian tension. The headline “Racial tensions flare in L.A.” refers to a changing African-American neighborhood — changing to Hispanic.

And so it goes. If the demographers are right, Maryland and its schools will see more of this as the nation moves toward a Latino majority in 50 years.

Sierra Leone students can return to classes

It’s safe to return to school in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

The West African nation’s minister of education, youth and sports, Alpha T. Wurie, last week invited students to re-enroll in schools — closed for eight weeks after a bloody rebel invasion of the nation’s capital.

“If your uniforms and books have been burned during the crisis, don’t hesitate to re-register in any school near where you live,” Wurie said.

Advocates rank legislation, budget items in Assembly

A coalition of education and civil rights advocates has ranked the school aid bills and budget items in the 1999 General Assembly according to how effectively they target students most in need.

Only Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s proposal for an increase in general school aid gets an “A” from the groups. The money, they say, would be distributed on the basis of district wealth.

Getting an ” F” is the $1.7 million gift from the governor to reduce class size in Montgomery County, one of Maryland’s wealthiest subdivisions. Also flunking is a bill to provide state funding for a portion of Social Security costs of teachers, community college instructors and public librarians.

That bill favors districts that can afford to pay higher salaries, say the three groups: the Maryland Education Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and Advocates for Children and Youth.

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