WHITTIER—About 400 students in the Whittier Union High School District’s magnet bilingual program are protesting school officials’ rejection of a popular English teacher’s bid to become director of the program.
Linda Niehaus, who has taught in the program for five of the 17 years it has existed, applied last month to replace Elias Alvarado as bilingual education director. Alvarado will begin a one-year sabbatical in September. Alvarado said when he returns, he will no longer head the program, which is based at La Serna High School.
Told of Selection
But Niehaus was recently told by La Serna Principal Leo G. Camalich that Christina Rivera, a teacher at Artesia High School, had been selected to head the program.
The decision to hire a successor from another district has been accepted grudgingly by Niehaus, but it has infuriated bilingual students, who held a rally on campus and met with school board members and district officials.
The students charged that officials of the 9,200-student district have ignored their pleas for a stronger educational program. They said Niehaus, an outspoken critic of some aspects of the program, would have improved bilingual education, thus allowing immigrant students to fit in more readily with other students.
“She (Niehaus) understands us,” said senior Luan Vu, an honors student who was chosen by fellow students to lead the fight for Niehaus. Vu said Niehaus also makes the students feel like a family.
“We are all a family,” he said. “She is like our sister and our parent. She makes us feel like (we are) at home.”
Won Grant for Program
Vu said Niehaus, who has been assistant director for almost four years, is the most qualified person for the job. He pointed out that Niehaus recently wrote a proposal that resulted in a $97,000 state grant for the program.
“She knows what she is doing,” said Vu, who escaped from Vietnam in a small boat almost four years ago and learned English under Niehaus’ instruction. “We are so disappointed.”
Although not directly criticizing the decision to pass over his assistant, Alvarado said in a telephone interview that Niehaus has been “an outstanding person to work with,” is generally well liked by other teachers and knows the curriculum better than anyone else.
But, he added, he did not know the “depth of qualities of the other person.”
As a way to ensure objectivity, district policy prohibited Alvarado from making recommendations or attending interviews during the hiring process. “I am obviously biased (toward Niehaus),” he said.
Alvarado praised the bilingual students for learning “the freedom of dissent.”
“I applaud these kids,” Alvarado said. “Some toes, perhaps, have been stepped on. But the kids have not broken any rules. What is remarkable is that these kids come from countries where democracy is suppressed. There are students today (in China) getting killed for standing up for their principles.”
Even Rivera, the appointed director, has praised the students’ efforts. “I’m really proud of them. The fact that they are standing up for what they believe in is commendable.”
Camalich, however, said he will not change his decision. He said a contract has been signed with Rivera.
“We received several applications, we interviewed several people, we made our choice. I cannot comment on anything more than that,” Camalich said. “This is a personnel matter.”
On Monday, Vu and 44 other bilingual students met with district administrator Alvaro Ramos at district headquarters to demand that Niehaus be given the director’s job and to voice concerns about the quality of the program. They also held a noisy rally last week at the high school.
Camalich ordered the students to halt the rally and confiscated a number of handmade signs that the students were carrying, Vu said.
Vu and other students testified Tuesday at the school board’s meeting. They later met with board members for about an hour in executive session.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Ramos said the students’ efforts are futile.
“I told them this is a free country,” Ramos said. “They should express their opinions and concerns. I listened to them for almost two hours. I admire their concerns, but the contract is signed.”
At last week’s rally, many of the bilingual students — who make up about one-quarter of the student population at La Serna High — complained that their curriculum includes some junior high-level subjects, which contributes to a 25% dropout rate among bilingual students.
“Linda knows what we need,” said Louis Garcia, who immigrated from central Mexico last year. He said that five months ago he spoke little English. He now speaks the language fluently. “She makes it her job to bring students to the level that we are supposed to be,” he said.
Alvarado said he agreed with the students’ charges that they are being treated as second-class citizens because they are often required to take lower-level classes until they become completely fluent in English, which takes an average of 1 1/2 years.
Alvarado said he and Niehaus have been fighting for several years to make changes in the curriculum that allow the bilingual students to take high-level courses before they can demonstrate full English proficiency, but have “met with resistance along the way.”
“Kids are delayed from getting into concrete academic levels,” Alvarado said. “In a way that’s unfair.”
But administrator Ramos, while conceding that some courses may not be challenging, claimed that the students are still free to choose college-preparatory courses if they desire.
“The problem is that some of them won’t understand everything that’s going on in class,” Ramos said. “The communication that’s taking place in the classroom could be hindering the (bilingual) students.”
He said the dropout rate among bilingual students is not significantly higher than the overall dropout rate.
About 90% of the 400 bilingual students are bused into the upscale Friendly Hills section of Whittier to attend the magnet bilingual program at La Serna High. Although about 75% of the students are Latino, the bilingual program also includes immigrants from Egypt, Romania, Vietnam, Cambodia and Korea.