Magnet Schools Deter Immigrant Pupils

Education: Critics say a dearth of bilingual teachers in top-flight classes shuts the door to most gifted but limited-English children.

Most immigrant students are excluded from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s highly lauded magnet schools, intended to provide top-flight education for high-achievers, because nearly every class is taught only in English, according to some educators and lawyers.

Last year, 4% of the 30,000 students enrolled in magnet schools spoke limited English, compared to 35% of the district’s students. The district this year is providing bilingual instruction in just 13 magnet school classrooms.

District officials say they are meeting the demand for Spanish-language instruction at magnet schools and that many Latino parents don’t want their children bused to magnet schools outside their neighborhoods.

But School Supt. Bill Anton agreed that the low enrollment of limited English-speaking students at magnet schools points to a problem. “It’s not the way it was set up,” he said. “We have to find out why we are not having (bilingual) programs in the magnet schools.”

Some education and legal experts say the numbers are appalling and blame the district for failing to recruit more non-English speakers.

“Where you have schools that are set up to provide specialized instruction to students of the district and one significant group of students are effectively shut out, you have both a legal and ethical problem,” said Peter Roos, an attorney with Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, a national public-interest law firm specializing in educational rights of minority and immigrant children.

Roos and several other public-interest attorneys are preparing to go to trial early next year in a 4-year-old lawsuit alleging that the district is unfairly spending more money and employing more experienced teachers at schools with higher than average enrollments of white students, such as magnet schools.

The district reserves between 30% and 40% of the seats in magnet schools for Anglo children, although they make up less than 15% of the district’s total enrollment of 625,000. Together, Anglo and Asian students make up nearly half of the magnet school enrollment, even though the two groups make up only 20% of district enrollment.

“There is a general attitude that the limited English-speaking student is a second-class citizen,” said Juan F. Lara, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School and a resident scholar at the Tomas Rivera Center, a national institute of policy studies. “Look at school districts with large limited English-speaking populations and it becomes patently clear they are considered an expendable population.”

District officials say there are no barriers to magnet schools. A magnet school brochure, including a version in Spanish, is distributed to students once a year.

“All children may apply to magnet programs, we never limit it,” said Assistant Supt. Theodore T. Alexander Jr., who heads the district’s magnet schools and other voluntary integration programs. “But it is a misconception that everyone in the district wants to be in a magnet.”

The district’s magnet schools and centers, which share facilities with regular schools, have for years finished far ahead of the city’s regular schools in almost every measure of academic achievement including test scores, graduation rates and college eligibility. Tens of thousands of children are on waiting lists for magnet schools, which can accommodate fewer than 10,000 new students each school year.

The district does not keep track of the language proficiency of its magnet school applicants. But district officials say a shortage of bilingual teachers and a reluctance by immigrant parents to send their children to schools outside of their neighborhoods probably discourages limited English-speaking students from applying to magnet schools.

District records show that last year 1,237 limited English-speaking students were enrolled in 93 magnet schools and centers, which by design offer the sort of equipment, curriculum and teachers found only in the best private schools.

Of about 8,000 students enrolled in 27 magnet schools and centers for only high-ability and gifted students, only 102 were Spanish-speaking, district records show. Another 200 or so gifted students who spoke languages other than Spanish or English were enrolled in those schools.

The Euclid Avenue School’s bilingual magnet center — which opened last year — is the first and only in Los Angeles to offer classes in Spanish for gifted and high-ability students, generally children who score in the top 2.5% to 4% on standard IQ tests.

“The sad fact is students aren’t being identified as gifted until they learn English,” said Euclid Principal Esther Castruita-McShane.

Bright immigrant children should be identified as gifted or high ability and then offered special programs in their native language while they learn English part of the day, said Sandra Kaplan, a visiting professor of education at USC and the assistant director of the Los Angeles-based National/State Leadership Training Institute on the Gifted and the Talented.

Kaplan has developed a series of tests to identify gifted students who speak languages other than English. Teachers at Euclid Avenue School have been using her techniques and this year identified 33 students as gifted.

The school board in May, 1988, voted to give priority to the hiring of bilingual teachers for magnet schools.

“Magnet schools are the best kind of schools the district has to offer,” said Eastside board member Leticia Quezada, who pushed for creation of the Euclid Avenue magnet school. “The fact is we spend more money in magnet schools compared to regular schools.”

The magnet school system was created nearly 15 years ago.

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