BELLFLOWER—A preliminary plan by the Bellflower Unified School District to place students who speak little English in a separate school has drawn fire from some educators who warn that it “smells of segregation” and may hinder students.
“One of my personal concerns is having an all-ethnic linguistic minority school,” said Chuck Acosta, a consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s bilingual education program. “You can segregate children not only by ethnicity but by linguistic skills. . . . These students need to be integrated.”
District officials do not believe that the project would illegally segregate students, but if any aspect of the plan does not comply with state education codes or federal laws, they said they will change it.
“We don’t want to do anything that is against the law,” Supt. George Bloch said. “We want to do the best we can to intensify our services to better meet the needs of our limited-English-speaking students.”
Board members recently approved a preliminary plan for a “Newcomer Center” that would provide limited-English-speaking students with intense English-language training as well as an introduction to the U.S. school system and culture. The center would also provide a clearinghouse for information on community services and would offer instruction in parenting and language skills to the parents of Newcomer Center students. District officials plan to place the center at Baxter or Los Flores elementary schools, both of which are unused.
Newly arrived immigrant children and students who receive low scores on their English-language tests would be transferred to the center — with their parent’s permission — for up to one year.
About 650 of the more than 9,000 students enrolled in both primary and secondary schools speak limited English; most of them are Latino. If all goes as planned, the Newcomer Center will open in September.
While educators praised some parts of the plan, especially those relating to community services and parent involvement, the notion that students would attend a full day of classes at a separate campus has made some skeptical.
Concepcion Valadez, a professor of education at UCLA who is internationally recognized for her work with limited-English-speaking children, said that there “could be a lot of problems” with the Bellflower plan.
“If the objective is to teach English, then the best way to do that is to have these children interact with native speakers, not to isolate them on a campus where they would be interacting with other beginners,” Valadez said. “Students really develop a language when they are with people who speak better than they.”
But board President Phyllis John and board member Don Hansen, who was a Spanish teacher for more than 20 years, argued that the Newcomer Center would not segregate or isolate limited-English-speaking children.
“The last thing that enters my mind is that we would be segregating these children,” Hansen said. “They are facing that already. They are isolated, troubled. . . . Putting these children in an academic situation where it is difficult to survive seems unfair. (The center) is a place to put kids so that they can acclimate themselves.”
Bellflower Unified School District Assistant Supt. Rebecca Turrentine said that the district has yet to iron out the final details of the Newcomer Center. It has not, for example, determined whether the program offered to the children will be all-English or what kind of bilingual education program the children will receive once they leave the Newcomer Center.
Turrentine stressed that no child would be asked to attend the school without his parents’ permission, and the student would be enrolled at the school for a maximum of one year. She also emphasized that the project is in its planning stages.
Before anything can be done, she said, the district needs state funding. The center will cost about $390,000 a year to operate. The district must also build up a qualified bilingual staff, Turrentine said.
There are only five credentialed bilingual teachers in the district, and another eight teachers are in training, Turrentine said. Finally, Turrentine said, the district needs the approval of the state Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights before it can proceed.
The Office of Civil Rights has no firm policy on Newcomer Centers, which have been around for at least two decades, but which only recently have become popular among school districts.
A report from a Newcomers Symposium in Oakland last year said that before giving approval to a Newcomer Center, the Office of Civil Rights looks at several factors, most important of which is the educational justification for such sites.
The report noted that there is still a great deal of controversy among educators about what constitutes a violation of anti-segregation statutes, and the debate is especially fierce when it comes to separate site centers, such as the one planned in Bellflower.
Most educators prefer a “school-within-a-school” Newcomer Center, which allows children to mix with the regular student body at times during the day. Others say separate school sites are fine if children attend school a half day, then return to their own schools.
Turrentine said a Newcomer Center appealed to a district task force because it would allow the district to focus its training, strategies and materials, which in turn would benefit the students.
Beatriz Arias, an Arizona State University education professor who specializes both in limited-English-speaking students and desegregation, believes that Newcomer Centers are valuable to students who are true “newcomers” to the country. She cautioned, however, against Bellflower’s plan to include not only recent immigrant children, but children who are already enrolled in the district and who have low test scores.
“One of the basic aspects of bilingual education is that students need to use the language acquired,” Arias said. “Students who have been here two or three years shouldn’t be segregated; they have already learned the system. To isolate them, instead of helping them to mainstream into the culture and language would be a setback.”
Supt. Bloch said the details of the plan, including contact with bilingual experts and state authorities on its legality, would continue to be worked out throughout the school year.