As immigrant students pour into district, programs try to get them into mainstream

Hazel Rojas’ class at Pomona Elementary School in Costa Mesa is an example of the Newport-Mesa School District’s commitment to educating immigrant students in the district, teachers say.

The commitment exists but doesn’t go far enough, some teachers say.

Rojas teaches a combination class of fourth- through sixth-graders.

Some of her students speak Spanish, some English; most speak both.

So Rojas juggles.

First, she teaches one group in Spanish.

Later, she moves over to read with her English-speaking students.

Meanwhile, the rest of the class works independently.

“What I have here is not ideal,” said Rojas, a veteran of seven years in bilingual teaching.

To progress, the Spanish-speaking children need more instruction in their own language, she said.

“At Pomona, we’re doing the best we can with what we have. (But) I think the district can do a lot more,” she said.

The district does have a program, and ideas are blossoming to prepare these students for their new lives, several teachers say. However, in an era of increasing immigration, they say, the programs don’t go far enough and need reorganization.

Immigrant students, especially ones who arrive here as teen-agers, are left behind and cut off from the mainstream, they say. These students must spend most of their time mastering English, while they fall behind in other subjects taught in a language they don’t understand.

The teachers insist that preparing these students is quickly becoming a necessity as the state rushes headlong toward the 21st century, in which the majority of Californians will be Hispanic.

“The California problem is properly addressed not as a problem of ethnicity, but as a problem of immigrants,” said Stephen Levy, an economist with the Palo Alto-based Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. “You’ve got people coming in who don’t have any acculturation.”

In the district, the area surrounding Estancia High School on Costa Mesa’s west side has experienced these demographic changes most dramatically.

“When I came, there were almost no minorities,” said Mary Gilliland, a second-grade teacher who came to Pomona School 17 years ago. “They aren’t minorities anymore. The Anglos are.”

Administrators realize this trend has swept the district during this decade. However, they say financial limitations prevent them from hiring enough bilingual teachers for every school that needs them.

Several teachers, although critical of the district on other points, acknowledge that ideas are being implemented to get these students into the mainstream.

Estancia, in particular, has become the breeding ground for a number of these developments.

For example, the school has set up a foods class for non-English-speaking students that helps ease these students into the mainstream on campus and teaches them customs of this country.

The Early Outreach Program of the University of California, Irvine, made its first visit to the district when Estancia teachers invited it to the campus this year. The program works in districts with large minority enrollment to introduce minority and newly immigrated students to the possiblity of a college education.

And in October, a group of 12 faculty members was formed to talk about ways of making the high school more responsive to the needs of the immigrant students.

But as they applaud these efforts, the teachers, primarily those in the Estancia teachers group, also say that the best way to bring these students into the American mainstream — through bilingual education — receives short shrift.

Bilingual education involves teaching students in their native language in core subjects, while teaching them English until they are ready to switch to English-only instruction. Teachers say bilingual education doesn’t exist at the Newport-Mesa district much beyond the elementary schools.

Yet, many students at the junior-high and high-school levels need bi-lingual instruction more than elementary students. The older the students get, the longer it takes them to learn the language. This is especially true of those with little schooling in their native country.

“It takes five to seven years to catch up in content to the English-speaking child,” said Barbara Chips, coordinator of second-language programs for the county Department of Education.

“We’re getting larger numbers of them (immigrant students with little or no prior schooling) in the whole state,” she said. “The biggest question facing us is, how do you get access to this core curriculum to these kids?”

Bilingual education is the answer, teachers insist.

“If you can think in English, you can learn Portuguese and you can learn to think in Portuguese,” said Eugenio Juarez, Estancia’s English as a Second Language teacher.

“If you know your primary language very well, it’s very easy to acquire a second one. The reason some of them are having trouble in English is because they can’t read or write in Spanish.”

The district’s program for educating limited-English students begins at kindergarten, with instruction in Spanish, in schools such as Pomona Elementary, where Hispanic students make up the majority.

But beginning at junior high school, the focus is on teaching social studies, mathematics and other courses in English at a slower pace — in classes known as sheltered classes.

These often don’t work well for older students with English problems, said Sue Hahn, an English as a Second Language teacher who taught at TeWinkle Intermediate School, until leaving in February.

“They’re sitting in these classes without really absorbing the material,” she said.

“(But) the state’s really going away from it (the bilingual approach),” said Rosemary Bodrogi, district director of state and federal projects, who supervises instruction of limited-English students.

California voters approved the English-only initiative two years ago, and in 1987 Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed extension of the state’s requirements for bilingual education, she said. But schools are required by law to provide access to the core curriculum for all students, regardless of English proficiency or legal status.

“We do not do the basic instruction in their native language. They have to be able to function in an English-speaking high school.” So teaching students in English early on is preferable, she said.

The other aspect of Newport-Mesa’s language curriculum to receive teacher criticism is a program at Davis Junior High School in Costa Mesa.

Davis closed last year and reopened this year as a magnet school for those in the upper grades with the most severe English problems.

Students come from Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools for English as a Second Language and sheltered social studies instruction, then return to their campuses before lunch.

The Davis program was the district’s answer to both the influx of students from different countries and the financial limitations it faces.

The Davis program allows the district to centralize teachers and materials, a necessity in an era of declining state funding, administrators say.

“We have two Vietnamese-credentialed staff members, but we certainly can’t divide them among six or seven schools,” Bodrogi said.

“At the present time, there is no way for me to replicate it (the Davis program),” Estancia Principal Bob Francy said.

Besides, he said, “It’s hard to put (students) into the mainstream of the high school and all that that involves when they have limited English skills.”

But keeping students at Davis for half the day isn’t helping them, some Estancia teachers say, and it keeps students out of the mainstream.

“I feel that the students need to feel like they are a part of this campus,” said Isabel Vinson, a member of Estancia’s group of 12 teachers, who supervises Estancia’s program for migrant families.

Returning those students to Estancia for instruction is one issue brought up by the group.

“It’s de-facto segregation,” said Juarez, another group member and one of the 58 young teachers to recently receive a layoff notice. “They should be here so they can rub elbows, go to assembly.”

Administrators deny they are practicing segregation, because the students return to their campuses before lunch. And students coming from Davis are involved in activities of all sorts, Francy said.

In the final analysis, teachers say, the combination of isolation and misdirected instruction is allowing students to fall through the cracks.

“They (district administrators) are doing a lot of things right,” Juarez said. “There is a program there. Meanwhile, there are kids that are flunking out. There’s a human cost.”

Juarez says he has seen three of his students drop out this year.

Eighteen students in grades 10 through 12 dropped out of Estancia last year, said Dale Woolley, district director of student services.

Nine were Hispanic, he said.

The teachers in the Estancia group realize their point of view may not be held by the majority, but they hope it’s only a matter of time.

“We’re making changes, but everything isn’t going to happen all at once,” Isabel Vinson said. “It’s going to take some time, but I think some changes are needed. As the Latino population grows we’re going to have no choice.”

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