English was nothing more than noise to Ricardo Perez when he was enrolled nine years ago in a Lennox kindergarten class. Though raised in the United States, his first language had always been Spanish, and he found English more confusing than understandable.
It even made him nervous.
These days, Ricky, as he is known to his friends, is an honors student at Lennox Middle School, reading aloud from English textbooks. Still soft-spoken, the 13-year-old has already made plans to attend college. And the anxiety that once stymied his studies is long gone.
Although Lennox school officials acknowledge that not all of the district’s students fare as well as Ricky, they say he is just one example of the success of the district’s model bilingual education program.
The program, which began in the late 1970s, stresses gradual instruction of English to non-native speakers while carrying on academic instruction in the students’ primary language. The goal of the program is to move students such as Ricky to English-only classes at or above the academic level of their native-English-speaking peers. It is a marked departure from so-called “immersion” programs in which immigrants are taught almost exclusively in English.
Although those programs drive the bilingual strategies at many schools, the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the California Department of Education in recent years have encouraged other districts to useLennox’s curriculum and teaching strategies as models for staff development and training.
The office of education selected Lennox Middle School classes last year to film an educational television program that is used as an instructional videotape for bilingual educators.
“It’s hard for us to find other middle schools that provide opportunities for non-English speakers in the form of a bilingual program and that have the staff qualified to teach it,” said Chuck Acosta, a bilingual education consultant with the office of education. “Lennox has taken the position that they will give it their best shot . . . and they’ve succeeded.”
Lennox’s classrooms reflect the changing face of education in Southern California. Spanish-language textbooks fill the shelves, classroom rules in English and Spanish are posted on walls, and brown-faced paper dolls are tacked to bulletin boards, along with dolls of other ethnicities.
More than 91% of the Lennox district’s students are Latino — primarily from Mexico and Central America. Most are recent immigrants, the children of parents drawn to the nearby hotels and airport-related businesses where many find work.
About 80% of Lennox schoolchildren are classified as limited in their English proficiency and are required under state law to be placed in bilingual education classes. The district, which consists of five elementary schools and one middle school, boasts that more than 70% of its 190 teachers are bilingual.
“The bilingual program here is the program,” said Marlene Wilson, coordinator of instruction.
However, what sets Lennox apart from other districts is the sincerity and commitment of administrators in complying with state and federal education requirements governing bilingual education, said Leroy Hamm, a bilingual education consultant with the California Department of Education. Hamm was part of a three-member state team that conducted Lennox’s successful compliance review last spring.
“There is no question that (Lennox) services are designed to meet the needs of their kids,” Hamm said. “It’s frustrating when we go to other districts and they drag their feet and are unwilling to try a different approach.”
Rita Esquivel, director of bilingual education for the U.S. Department of Education, said Lennox “has a wonderful program that can certainly be replicated by other communities that have a Spanish-English population or a large population of limited-English-proficient students, all of whom speak the same language. We really are excited about the things going on in Lennox.”
Teacher Eileen Martinez is leading her first-graders through a passage of a Spanish reading book.
“Tobi le da a la pelota. La pelota sube y sube y sube.” The children dutifully repeat the phrases. The translation in English: “Tobi hits the ball. The ball rises higher and higher and higher.”
The childrens’ other academic subjects are also taught in Spanish, though they receive about 45 minutes a day in English language instruction. Most move to an all-English environment in the third grade.
“The ultimate goal is English proficiency, but not at the expense of math and reading and social studies while they are learning English,” Wilson said.
“The flaw with other bilingual programs is sometimes they’ll concentrate on Spanish only and teach little English,” Wilson said, “or don’t worry about Spanish at all and only teach English.
“You end up with a functionally illiterate kid; he can’t read in English and he can’t read in Spanish, either.”
Supporters of the Lennox approach say its success is made possible by the depth of its bilingual staff. Whereas many school districts struggle to attract qualified bilingual education teachers, Lennox is consistently able to attract top teachers for its program because of its reputation.
“The secret there is the people and the sense of family that you get when you are at Lennox that makes it work,” Esquivel said.
The rise in bilingual staffing — and much of the success of the program — is credited to Lennox Supt. Kenneth Moffett. When Moffett first took over the district in 1976, there were only six bilingual teachers serving a student population that was more than 48% Latino.
“As I went around to the classes, I found that basically the aides were doing the teaching,” Moffett said. “We had English-only teachers that were doing the best that they could, but what essentially we had was some educated and some not-so-educated aides who happened to speak Spanish and who were really teaching these kids.”
Although the quality of teaching is considerable, many Lennox supporters also point out the district’s overwhelming support and involvement by parents, whose attendance is 90% to 100% at parent conferences, back-to-school-nights and other school functions.
Residents of the 1.25-square-mile, unincorporated community are besieged by blight, gangs and drug dealers. They see the school district, designated as one of eight “port-of-entry” immigrant districts in the state, as an oasis.
There are also subtle attempts to make parents feel at ease with the school system. Elementary schools in Lennox have benches under trees for parents to sit while waiting for their children after school. “That in itself is a non-verbal sign that tells the parents they are welcome in the school,” Esquivel said.
Staff members are even known to escort parents to medical clinics to get their children immunized. Moffett sees such community outreach as crucial.
“If we told them to go out and get their shots, they wouldn’t come back for a month,” Moffett said. “Then we’d go out and have to find them and they still wouldn’t have their shots because they don’t understand the system. It’s like a bureaucracy to them.”
He recalled that in 1979, when the district first went on a year-round academic calendar, few kindergartners showed up for the first day of classes because parents were unaware of the change.
“I hired two Hispanic males and gave them $10 a kid if they could get them into school,” Moffett said. “I called them my ‘headhunters’ and sent them out into the community to go house-to-house to find out if there are kindergarten-age kids there. We made up the difference in one day when they brought in 88 kids.”