The Los Angeles Unified School District’s ambitious plan to turn around its troubled bilingual education program emphasizes training monolingual teachers to better communicate with students who speak little English, a monumental task at a time when teacher morale is low and the hurdles seem insurmountably high.
In response to a biting report showing the district’s failure to educate middle and high school students who are not fluent in English, the district intends to spend the next two years launching “teacher academies” that will focus on the latest methods for reaching limited-English speakers.
The approach has received high marks from state education officials, as well as local educators who say it appears to address a weakness in the existing program. But the new plan still does not tackle what principals and teachers say are major obstacles: the lack of bilingual teachers, the problem of crowded classrooms and a teaching force deluged with a wide range of “priority” demands.
“You can only juggle so many balls at one time and teachers find all this terribly frustrating,” said one middle school assistant principal who is scrambling to find teachers who speak Spanish, Korean and two Filipino dialects. “And it’s difficult when criticism like this is heaped upon us.”
Acting state Supt. of Public Instruction William D. Dawson has threatened to withhold nearly $60 million if the district does not make substantial progress toward training teachers by December. The audit showed that thousands of secondary school students who are not English fluent are stuck in unchallenging classes and are prevented from taking enough courses to graduate.
In an interview Friday, Dawson said he has been impressed with the district’s swift response to the problem since he first leveled the ultimatum in August to Supt. Sid Thompson and school board President Leticia Quezada.
“The plan is bold, no-nonsense and well-crafted,” Dawson said. “It can, if implemented, get the results we are seeking. . . . At this stage of the game, I’m impressed. I don’t think these are just words, I think they are committed.”‘
The plan is among the first litmus tests for Thompson and his new top lieutenants, who have made reform and accountability their slogan in the midst of a drive to break up the giant district.
In a highly unusual approach to school district reports, the new bilingual improvement plan specifies deadlines and identifies high and mid-level bureaucrats who will carry out tasks, a move that would allow the public to easily see where the plan breaks down.
“It’s a bold, gutsy document,” Dawson said. “That’s the kind of attitude that needs to be saluted.”
But out in the trenches, at middle and high school campuses across the sprawling district, teachers, counselors and principals say the challenge is daunting.
For most schools, enforcing bilingual education policies has become a scramble for scarce resources of bilingual teachers and foreign language texts, forcing educators to assemble patchwork plans.
Nearly 280,000 students — more than 40% of the district’s total population — speak little or no English. While the vast majority of those students speak Spanish, dozens of other languages are spoken.
State and district bilingual education policies call for students to be taught basic courses in their native language while at the same time taking English as a Second Language courses. But at any given time, the district is 2,000 bilingual teachers short of fully implementing that policy.
Vito Bebellis, assistant principal at Madison Middle School in North Hollywood, one of the 83 schools audited by the state, said Friday he is confronted with an “impossible task” of finding teachers and organizing class schedules for his students.
“‘We have students who speak Tagalog, Cebuano, Armenian, Russian, Lebanese,” Bebellis said. “We scramble to make things work.”
For example, Bebellis has resorted to combining a world history and U.S. history class so that a Spanish-speaking history teacher could communicate with students. Most schools fill the bilingual void with aides who translate.
Peter L. Ferry, principal of South Gate Middle School, said just as he completed training for all his teachers and set class assignments, the school was hit with an influx of 300 new Spanish-speaking students. Again, he was short of teachers.
To address such common frustrations, the district’s new plan to improve bilingual education focuses on training monolingual teachers in a technique called “sheltered English.” Under this method teachers learn how to use more graphics, speak in clear and concise words and refrain from using idioms.
School board member Victoria Castro, who was principal at state-audited Belvedere Middle School, echoed the cries of other principals who said they have been frustrated by the district’s past lack of teacher training opportunities.
Even if the courses are offered, both teachers union officials and many administrators say educators must be given time off from class for training. They say it is unfair to expect them to take classes on their own time, given a 10% salary cut they took in the last school year.
Day Higuchi, a vice president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, said the union is insisting that its members work with the district as a partner in the training effort, a collaboration that is already under way. One gap in the current district plan, he said, is that there is no move to offer intense Spanish-language education to current teachers.