At Pacific Palisades Elementary School, Principal Terry Arnold has only two bilingual teachers and six aides to educate 120 Spanish-speaking students who are bused to her school each day.
At Cowan Elementary School in Westchester, teacher Susan Blackwell-Brown hands out puzzles to occupy the half-dozen third graders in her class whose language she cannot speak.
At Wilbur Elementary School in Tarzana, neighborhood parents complain that their children’s education is suffering as teachers struggle to cope with new students who speak no English.
Across the Los Angeles Unified School District, students, teachers, parents and administrators are frustrated with a situation in which large numbers of elementary school students who cannot speak English are forced to fend for themselves in classes where no one speaks their language.
A record 20,000 students — 7,000 more than last year and most of whom speak little English — are being bused from their overcrowded neighborhoods this year to schools ill-equipped to receive them.
“It’s a struggle,” said Blackwell-Brown. “You have no material, you don’t speak their language . . . sometimes you know they’re not getting anything, but there’s nothing you can do.”
The district’s bilingual education plan calls for the use of bilingual teachers or aides whenever a school has more than 10 students who speak the same foreign language on any grade level. About 90% of foreign students speak Spanish, and most who speak other languages are scattered throughout the district and often get special instruction.
But there are nowhere near enough bilingual teachers and aides to go around, forcing school principals to scrap traditional teaching plans and adopt approaches such as team teaching and cooperative learning, which may have students as young as first grade changing classrooms and teachers several times each day.
“Theoretically, all limited-English-proficient kids should be in classrooms where someone speaks their language,” said Michael Ginsik, an adviser in the district’s bilingual program. “Realistically, they probably are not.”
Bilingual education — the notion that children should learn in their native language before they tackle subjects in English — has been passionately debated nationwide.
The Los Angeles district — with about 170,000 of its nearly 600,000 students speaking little or no English — has remained steadfast in its support for bilingual education.
But a burgeoning population of students who do not speak English, and a lack of teachers and classrooms, threatens to accomplish what bilingual education’s opponents have not been able to do — force students to learn in English-only classrooms.
Most of the district’s bilingual teachers are assigned to schools in South and East Los Angeles, where most Spanish-speaking children reside. But because schools in those areas are overcrowded, the district has “capped” many of them and buses the overflow to schools on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley.
Officials had predicted that a large proportion of the district’s enrollment growth this year would be among non-English-speaking students as immigrants continue to flock to the central city. But the problem has been finding classroom space for the new students, while maintaining racial balance and minimizing travel time on buses in the sprawling 500-school district.
Officials hope a new $5,000 annual pay bonus will attract more bilingual teachers. But for now, many schools are forced to rely largely on bilingual aides — primarily college students who work three hours each day with groups of non-English-speaking students.
Schools which receive bused-in students are given money by the district to hire one aide for every 30 students they receive, but finding the aides has proved to be a challenge for some schools.
“When you’re at a school like this, where there’s no resident Spanish-speaking population and it’s far away from any college with (an education) program, it’s hard to attract aides,” said Pacific Palisades Principal Arnold, who has six aides for 10 bilingual classrooms.
“Who wants to travel way out here and back for a three hour-a-day job?” she said.
To cope with the shortage, many principals move their aides around to cover more than one classroom — but that still leaves many Spanish-speaking children alone in classes with English-speaking teachers for much of the day.
Except for the 40 minutes each day that Blackwell-Brown has a bilingual aide in her classroom, she tries to make do with the smattering of “street Spanish” she picked up teaching in East Los Angeles years ago.
“Sometimes the kids just sit there . . . you know they’re not getting anything. You feel so guilty, but your back is against the wall. What can you do?”
Some overburdened schools try to maximize use of teachers and aides with concepts spelled out in the district’s master plan for bilingual education. But those non-traditional approaches have spawned some opposition from teachers and parents.
“You’ve got teachers who’ve been here for years and done a wonderful job and suddenly they’ve got these children they can’t reach,” said Charlotte McKinney, head of a district task force dealing with bilingual education. “It’s very frustrating.
“The way it used to be — the self-contained classroom with one teacher where the kids get to know each other and stay together — that’s a wonderful model, but it doesn’t work in this district anymore.”
The district is sponsoring training sessions to teach principals and teachers concepts such as team teaching — where two or three bilingual classrooms are combined, with a bilingual teacher and a teacher who only speaks English — and cooperative learning groups, where children work with other children, in effect tutoring their peers.
Those approaches have incensed some English-speaking parents who feel that their children are being shortchanged.
Students as Tutors
“We’re living in an area where there are a lot of housekeepers, so some of our kids have picked up a little Spanish,” said the mother of a Wilbur student, who asked not to be identified.
“Now my daughter’s time is spent tutoring the Spanish-speaking kids because the attitude of the teachers is they can’t help the kids. They don’t speak their language, so they’re ignoring them, they’re leaving them behind.”
Parents have also complained about sheltered English, the teaching method many monolingual teachers must employ in classrooms that include Spanish-speaking youngsters, using a slower pace, simple words, more visuals and more acting out.
“The teacher winds up having to teach at the lowest common denominator,” said Elaine Parlen, whose daughter is in the fourth grade at Wilbur. “That’s not fair to our kids who are trying to learn and to stretch.”
Complicating the situation is the fact that many Spanish-speaking students did not reach their new schools until several weeks into the school year — and some are still coming — forcing principals to dismantle carefully-conceived plans and switch teachers and students around to try to accommodate the newcomers.
“We got far more youngsters than we anticipated,” said Wilbur Principal Frank Specchierla, whose San Fernando Valley school received about 200 Spanish-speaking students from inner-city schools this semester.
“It’s been a real challenge for everyone,” he said. He and the teachers have been so preoccupied with the logistics of accommodating the new students, “we haven’t really had a chance to worry about things like what reading groups (the Spanish-speakers) should be in.
“It’s meant changes for a lot of our kids, but some schools had it worse,” he said. “I know some principals who had to reorganize four or five times.”