School Narrows Language Gap With New Bilingual Emphasis

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO—When Arnulfo Malagon arrived from Mexico 23 years ago, he was one of a handful of Latino students attending San Juan Elementary School across the street from the town’s historic Spanish mission.

Now, Malagon is a third-grade teacher at the school, presiding over a class that is two-thirds Latino. In fact, the number of Latinos at San Juan Elementary is now nearly five times the average of the Capistrano Unified School District.

But as the Latino population increased, test scores plummeted. San Juan Elementary had the lowest California Assessment Program scores of any school in South County last year, and school officials are struggling to cope with language and cultural barriers that were practically non-existent just five years ago.

“It’s a challenge for all of us,” said district Assistant Supt. William D. Eller. “These are disadvantaged kids who are trying to learn in a foreign environment.”

About 11% of the district’s 23,493 students are Latino, compared to 53% at San Juan Elementary. In 1985, the district’s Latino population was just 5%.

Most of the new Latin American immigrants whose children attend San Juan Elementary live in a number of apartment complexes near the San Juan Capistrano historic town center.

This influx of Latino students has forced school officials to beef up their bilingual, computer and video programs to help students learn English faster.

Malagon was one of eight bilingual teachers and administrators hired last year to turn the school’s poor CAP performance around. Half the school’s 32 teachers are now bilingual, in addition to a bilingual principal and staff psychologist.

“As rapidly as possible, we want to transition these kids (into all-English instruction),” Eller said.

But some Latino parents say the low CAP scores may be an indication that school officials are ill-equipped to deal with the new Latino students.

Rosaria Garcia, who lives in the Casa Capistrano condominium complex, said that her two children who attend San Juan Elementary have learned to speak English well enough to get along.

“They still don’t read or write,” Garcia said in Spanish. “The school calls me to tell me my children have problems. But I don’t know what they are talking about.”

And Aurora Fuentes said that her son, who spent four years at San Juan Elementary, is still struggling to get by at Dana Hills High School. Fuentes said her daughter dropped out of high school last week because “she just didn’t get it.”

A recently released study of Orange County Latinos by the Tomas Rivera Center in Claremont found that the opportunity for a good education is among the top concerns of parents.

But all too often, suburban schools are not prepared to educate students from another culture, said Leobardo Estrada, a nationally noted UCLA demographer who was technical adviser on the Latino study.

“There are huge drop-out rates (among Latinos) because Orange County schools that were created for a suburban white population are not used to dealing with inner city kids,” he said. “It’s been a difficult transition, and many kids are falling through the cracks.”

San Juan Elementary Principal Michael E. Hoy, a bilingual educator hired to take over the school and its growing bilingual program this year, said that if education is the “number one priority,” culturalization will follow.

“It is our ethical and legal obligation to teach these kids in whatever language they learn best in,” Hoy said. “Then we just hope that they can transition as fast as possible before the window of opportunity (of learning) is closed for them.”

However, the language the children know best isn’t the language used on CAP tests.

While most of the district’s 17 elementary schools received CAP scores that placed them in the top 20% of schools statewide, San Juan Elementary’s reading, writing and mathematics scores for third-graders placed the school in the bottom third in the state, according to school records.

Sixth-graders’ test scores fared better but were still at the bottom of the district list.

Hoy acknowledged the low CAP scores but complained that they paint an unfair picture of San Juan Elementary. He pointed out that many Latinos tested still had little working knowledge of English when the test was administered.

To try and improve academic performance, Hoy said, the school has created a a number of after-school programs to supplement classroom instruction. The school also started the San Juan Elementary School Community Task Force last year to provide food, medical attention and organized recreational activities for needy children.

“Right now we have a chance to make a difference in these kids’ lives,” Hoy said.

When he was a student at San Juan Elementary, Malagon said, he and a few other Latino students often spent recesses sweating over English lessons while their Anglo classmates played outside. Malagon remembers feeling left out of most programs because he was unfamiliar with the Anglo children and unable to speak English very well.

Now, Latino students in Malagon’s classroom are welcomed by Spanish-speaking teachers and even bilingual computer software.

“As soon as a new kid comes into class, we make him feel at home,” he said. “We’re really jumping ahead with computers. This takes (the students) a step further.”

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