New look in Hemet: classes not in English

Twenty-six foreign languages are heard in Hemet schools these days.

HEMET—Barney Rosen keeps up a snappy repartee in his science class, throwing jokes out to his 30 students and sprinkling Spanish through his lecture on negative and positive charges.

When he notices a girl doesn’t understand the word iron, he changes to the Spanish equivalent, hierro, and plows on through the world of iron filings and magnetism.

Rosen isn’t fluent in Spanish and most of his students aren’t fluent in English. Rosen writes his notes on an overhead projector and slowly reads them aloud so students who are learning English can follow along. When he speaks, he uses his hands and other props to illustrate the lectures, and he always talks slowly, enunciating the words. Those who cannot understand English sit by students who can translate.

They enrolled in Rosen’s West Valley High School science class because they need to keep up with academics while learning English or they won’t graduate on time. Or, they might never graduate at all.

“We’re pobrecitos, poor little ones,” Rosen jokes and his students smile.

Not everyone in Rosen’s science class speaks Spanish. Some students are Portugese, German, Indian and Chinese. All speak little or no English.

The make-up of that class reflects the new Hemet Unified School District.

Hemet used to be a homogeneous, English-speaking community with a smattering of students who weren’t fluent in English. Just 12 years ago, only a couple hundred students didn’t speak English, said Donna Viola, who oversees the district’s bilingual program.

Today, 1,757 of the district’s 14,000 students speak any
of 26 foreign languages.

Most speak Spanish, but 15 students speak Gujarati and six speak Hindi, languages of India. Others speak Arabic, Chinese dialects, Tagalog, Vietnamese or Russian.

The educational focus is changing as well, although the teaching staff hasn’t. The district has only four teachers with bilingual credentials, Viola said. Another 40 are working on earning bilingual credentials, and Hemet will need yet another eight to 10 by
September. Hemet is so desperate to hire bilingual teachers that it
is offering a stipend equal to 3 percent the usual annual salary.

Hemet has had a bilingual-education program since the 1970s in some form or another, usually bilingual instructional aides or tutors. Those still exist, but Hemet is doing much more with its few truly bilingual teachers.

Academic courses are now taught in Spanish at three elementary schools, Acacia Middle School and Hemet and West Valley high schools. The district is advertising for people to help students who speak languages such as Chinese. Those students must attend regular classes because there are not enough students who speak that language to make a separate class.

English-speaking students are taught cultural awareness and sensitivity. Student clubs have formed that encourage interracial friendships. Hemet High is planning a multicultural fair.

Other Riverside County communities are doing the same.

In the Coachella Valley Unified School District, where only 39 percent of the students are fluent in English, several classes required for graduation are offered in Spanish, including biology, literature and social studies. At Riverside’s Polytechnic High and Gage Middle schools, some courses are taught in Vietnamese, Hmong and Romanian.

The students also take intensive English courses.

The state Department of Education does not require districts to teach children in their own language. The San Jacinto Unified School District has a high percentage of students whose first language is Spanish. Because the district is so small, it still relies on bilingual instructional aides to help English-speaking teachers.

In Hemet, West Valley senior Fina Mendibles views bilingual classes as a godsend. She was in a college-prep physical science course for English-speakers, but she fell behind. Without science, she won’t graduate.

The Spanish-speaking students at West Valley love the option of taking courses designed for them, but not everyone shares their enthusiasm.

“There’s always people complaining that it’s not providing the standard academics,” said Maria Deharo, Coachella Valley bilingual-education coordinator. Deharo said students are receiving the same level of education, just in their own language.

In Hemet, Rosen said his science class for non-English speakers differs only slightly from the college-preparatory course for those fluent in the language. The college-prep class moves faster, has more math and students work in labs without as much supervision.

Rosen said many students enrolled in the class go on to college.

Those without a complete understanding of how languages are learned sometimes think a child who can communicate on the playground possesses the skills needed to read a civics book or
write a composition in English, Viola said. A person needs five to
seven years of study to acquire those skills, she said. Meanwhile, that child is falling so far behind in the academic courses he may never catch up, she said.

“They begin to fail and then they become our drop-outs,” she said.

The most common cry from bilingual-education critics is that anyone living in the United States should learn English, and taxpayer dollars should not be spent on courses in foreign languages. No other country would provide such a service for Americans living abroad, they say.

“What we pay for bilingual education is always going to be far less than on social services” for the students who drop out of school, Viola said.

Last summer, the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan state watchdog agency, released a controversial report called, “A Chance to Succeed: Providing English Learners with Supportive Education. ” The report called California’s bilingual-education program a failure because, it alleged, the number of students who are not fluent in English has nearly doubled since 1987, but the number of students who have become fluent has not improved. State Department of Education officials denounced the report as “divisive, wasteful and unproductive. “

“The English issue to me is not an issue,” said Christine Petzar, a consultant for the county Office of Education’s bilingual teacher training program. “It comes down to whether you see the
(foreign) language as a strength or a liability. “

Those who see a foreign language as a liability want to eradicate it and to replace it with English, she said.

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