Bilingual students in some Los Angeles elementary schools are spending their afternoons on the playground— instead of in the classroom learning English.
In LAUSD parlance, it’s called “mixing,” a practice that meets state and federal law if the bilingual students spend that time with English-speaking pupils. The goal is to help them hone their English and ensure their education is not segregated.
But at some schools, mixing amounts to nothing more than non-English-speaking children playing and socializing with each other on playgrounds instead of learning in the classroom.
Teachers and parents have complained about the practice for years, and the school district’s head of instruction acknowledged last week that some schools are using the mixing period as nothing more than an extended recess.
“That has happened—I agree it’s a waste of time,” said Carmen Schroeder, interim assistant superintendent of instruction. “It’s a big institution. Some schools are not following the rules as they should.”
Schroeder said she does not know exactly how often mixing occurs and said no plans are under way to change the practice.
Exactly how schools teach bilingual students is taking on new importance as critics campaign to place a statewide initiative on the June ballot that would essentially dismantle bilingual education programs.
Some school administrators believe they can satisfy the English instruction requirement by shuttling students into music and art classes and physical education. But other schools simply send children outside to play.
Many teachers and parents call it a waste of time—particularly in a district where fewer than one in 10 bilingual students move to classes taught in English.
>There’s nothing academic going on; it’s just a lot of playtime,” said one teacher who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Parents also are outraged.
“They don’t teach them; they just put them on the playground,” said Lorena Jaramillo, whose daughter is enrolled in a traditional class at Monte Vista Elementary in Los Angeles.
Becki Robinson, elementary vice president for United Teachers Los Angeles, said teachers have voiced concerns about mixing for years, but nothing has been done.
“I kept hearing, ‘What are we going to do to make this different?’ > Robinson said.
The problem stems from the lack of instructors trained to teach English as a second language, Robinson said.
“If teachers are not trained properly, then programs are going to break down,” Robinson said.
No state oversight
State school inspectors were unaware of the mixing problems because they have not visited the district’s elementary schools in years. They have only enough employees to focus on middle and high school programs—which in 1993 were determined to be seriously out of compliance with the law.
Among the inadequacies: lack of proper English instruction and few trained bilingual teachers. Now all but three of the secondary schools are in compliance, Schroeder said.
Schroeder could not name the three schools, citing continued legal problems.
Fred Tempes, assistant superintendent for the state’s Compliance and Consolidated Programs Management Division, said he is concerned after learning that Los Angeles schools are using playgrounds rather than classrooms.
“We’ll be checking on this,” he said.
State law requires much more than playtime when the English- and limited-English-speaking students are in class together.
Playground mixing “would not be typical of something we would recommend,” said Norman Gold, manager of bilingual compliance for the California Department of Education.
“It’s got to be more than recess. It has to be structured instruction in art, music, physical education,” Gold said.
The state requires bilingual students to have daily instruction in English language development “to develop English language skills quickly and efficiently,” Gold said.
While no set percentage of time is mentioned in the law, the rule of thumb is 20 percent of a student’s time must be spent in English instruction, Gold said.
The LAUSD’s own bilingual plan states that students are spending 30 percent or more of their day in English instruction.
Of that time, the “Master Plan for English Leamers” describes how students must be taught English skills 10 percent of the day. For an additional 20 percent, they should be mixing in art, music and structured physical education classes. .
Teachers, administrators and parents say they see a much different practice within Los Angeles schools.
Case in point
At Lorena Elementary School in East Los Angeles, one teacher said students are sent to play all afternoon. Little or no mixing occurs; Spanish-speaking students were speaking Spanish with their friends.
Principal Janet Allsbrook said the afternoon period on the playground “is supposed to be a teaching time.”
When asked if students actually received English instruction, Allsbrook said: “I’ve seen a lot of teachers out there teaching games. When the children learn the games, teachers are officiating.”
Allsbrook said students at the school also received instruction in art and music during mixing, but could not break down how often.
“Those subjects are low-anxiety,” Allshrook said. “Students enjoy those subjects, and it’s much easier for them to learn.”
School board concerned
Board of Education members said they were unaware of the mixing problem until a veteran teacher faxed a letter to the board president chronicling the situation.
After viewing children aimlessly at play at three elementary schools, the teacher wrote that she became “deeply concerned about the loss of academic time used during mixing?We need to use the after-lunch period for reading and reading-related activities.”
The teacher included a letter she had written in July to Superintendent Ruben Zacarias warning him of the problem.
“Kids spend half their day playing,” the teacher wrote. “They call it ‘mixing.’ Its goal is to expose Spanish speakers to English speakers in a low-anxiety setting. Its reality is hours happily spent with everyone speaking Spanish and playing games.”
Board of Education President Julie Korenstein, whose district is entirely in the San Fernando Valley, said on Friday she will ask Zacarias to report back on the problem.
“I’m not sure we need to get rid of it altogether. I would like to see this working properly,” Korenstein said. “If we have to do additional teacher training, then that’s what we’ll do.”
While school board members say the existence of mixing is news to them, top administrators knew about the problem.
Assistant Superintendent Schroeder also said she had not heard about the mixing problem until last week. But documents show that Schroeder knew as early as August, when Zacarias asked her to respond to the teacher’s concerns.
In her Aug. 27 letter to the teacher, Schroeder said the district was concerned because “it is the intent of this instructional period to build on English oral and academic skills.”
In the letter Schroeder said some schools did provide academic instruction during mixing time, but added it would require “a great commitment and support on behalf of the school administrator and teachers.”
On Thursday, Schroeder said she did not recall her Aug. 27 correspondence and then said she >vaguely” did.
“I get so many letters,” she said.
Even if students are given classes in art, music and physical education—instead of being turned out on the playground—some educators said it still does little to help children learn English.
One veteran teacher said after two years of the practice at Sunrise Elementary School, she and other teachers refused to participate in mixing.
“These children needed remedial reading, they needed math—they didn’t need to play,” said the teacher, who refused to use her name for fear of retaliation.
The Rev. Alice Callaghan, who runs an after-school child-care center downtown, said simply exposing students to English does not teach children the language.
“If you don’t intentionally teach vocabulary, in planned instruction, it doesn’t work,” said Callaghan, who supports the Ron Unz initiative for bilingual education. “I’ve seen here that it doesn’t matter which language the teacher speaks, the children continue to chatter away in Spanish.”
Just last week, the Board of Education voted to oppose the so-called Unz bilingual initiative, named for its author.
But the Silicon Valley businessman said Los Angeles’ mixing problems show how much bilingual education needs an overhaul.
“It shows how one misguided policy leads to another disastrous policy,” said Unz, who had not heard about the mixing concerns. “It makes me wonder how many other disastrous implementations are going on in the LAUSD that no one knows about.”