Speaking With 1 Voice

New strategies emerge to help immigrant students learn English

Paul DeBonis spends a good portion of each day in the world of make-believe.

One recent morning, he pretended he was eating a scrumptious meal, with invisible silverware and dishes. Then he stepped into an imaginary car and pretended to drive.

No, DeBonis was not teaching pantomime to aspiring actors; he was teaching English.

His task is not an easy one. In DeBonis’ classroom of 10th- and 11th-graders are recent immigrants from Russia, Armenia, Central America and Vietnam.

DeBonis’ task, while daunting, is not unique.

Immigrant children are flooding into California schools, and as they do, teachers are struggling to deal with classes in which many, sometimes most, students speak little or no English. No school district has a greater influx of such children than the Los Angeles Unified School District. And in Los Angeles, it would be hard to find a spot where the challenge they present is more evident than in Hollywood, where DeBonis teaches.

DeBonis is a teacher at Hollywood High School, where about 1,200 — or about 55% — of the school’s 2,182 students have limited English skills. More than two dozen languages — including Spanish, Armenian, Russian, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Arabic, Romanian and Hungarian — are spoken. More than half of the students speak Spanish, and about 25% speak Armenian. The rest speak other languages; about 15% speak only English.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, about 38% of the district’s 625,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students — more than double the statewide average of 18% — have been identified as having limited proficiency in English.

Even if DeBonis taught in a dozen languages, instead of just English, he would not be understood by many in his class. So he gestures, pantomimes and slowly speaks sentences describing his actions, all part of his method of teaching ESL — English as a Second Language.

“Every day when I see my friend, I shake his hand,” he said, grasping a student’s hand and moving it up and down. “Now, I am shaking his hand,” he continues, carefully enunciating each syllable.

“Because my students come from five or six different countries, it’s difficult to communicate in a language they all understand,” DeBonis said.

ESL, DeBonis’ preferred method, is but one of the components of the Los Angeles school district’s bilingual education program. Teachers throughout the Los Angeles area are trying a plethora of methods and combinations of methods to help their students reach fluency in English.

In another Hollywood High classroom, for example, Cecile Schwartz helps her 10th-grade students learn English by teaching language concepts and other subjects entirely in Spanish, a method known as primary language instruction.

During a recent class, she and her students ran through the conjugation of the verb preferir — to prefer. She pointed to the words that the overhead projector shone on the wall and the students enunciated: “Yo preferi, tu preferiste, el prefirio, nosotros preferimos and ellos prefirieron.” They went on to conjugate “dormir” — to sleep.

“Being able to revert to the native language of my students makes it easier for me to communicate complex concepts,” Schwartz said.

A third method, known as “sheltered subject matter teaching,” uses visual aids to teach course material in subjects such as math, science, social studies, art or physical education.

“When students take a subject matter course that is comprehensible, they acquire language just as easily as if they were taking a language course,” said USC linguistics professor Stephen Krashen, an expert in bilingual education.

Marissa Hipol uses the sheltered technique to teach science to her Latino and Armenian 10th- and 11th-grade students at Hollywood High. Like Schwartz, she used an overhead projector to illustrate a lesson. “Here is a picture of a crayfish,” she said. “We drew it yesterday. Let’s discuss it before we have a quiz.”

“This is the dorsal view,” she continued, placing her hands on her back. “What do you have in the cephalothorax region?”

Her speech became slower and clearer as she answered her own question: “Face, eyes, head and neck,” she enunciated, pointing to the crayfish’s body parts. “Now let’s talk about the abdomen.”

The three techniques used by the Hollywood High School teachers also are used — alone or in combination — to teach elementary school children who speak limited English.

On a recent morning at Grant Elementary School in Hollywood, Lucy Gureghian taught ESL to nine of her 23 third-grade Armenian-speaking students, while her aide, Sirvart Egian, taught reading to 11 other Armenian students. A third group that included two Korean-speaking children was involved in independent study areas within the classroom.

The groups — each with different proficiency levels in English — rotate from teacher to aide to the study centers. Later, the students receive sheltered instruction in mathematics, art, social studies, science and physical education.

Gureghian’s task is made a bit easier by the fact that she speaks Armenian.

But often it is the children themselves who make the difference.

“The children are so eager to learn. They’re excited because they’re in a new country where they’re exposed to new foods and customs,” she said.

About 80% of Grant’s nearly 1,200 students have limited English skills, according to school officials.

Los Angeles Unified is struggling to deal with such staggering numbers. Newcomers are asked the languages spoken in their homes and are evaluated for fluency in English. Those termed “limited-English proficient” are placed in a bilingual-ESL program and assessed periodically to see if they are ready for a mainstream, total English-language curriculum.

According to Amelia McKenna, assistant superintendent of bilingual ESL instruction, Los Angeles Unified in 1988 adopted a master plan for bilingual education, which details models of instruction. Most schools use more than one model, she said.

In elementary schools, a so-called full-bilingual classroom usually contains students who speak a common language but who are not fluent in English and who are taught in their native language most of the day.

In contrast, students in a modified bilingual classroom — such as Gureghian’s class at Grant — might receive instruction in their primary language from a teacher’s aide. Both programs also provide students with ESL and sheltered instruction.

When a classroom contains smaller groups of students who speak a variety of languages, the teacher usually develops a strong English-language development program rich in ESL and sheltered teaching.

The guidelines are similar in junior and senior high schools. In the upper grades, however, students with limited English skills are rarely placed in a full- or modified-bilingual program unless their literacy level in their native language is low. A typical 10th-grade schedule for a Latino student at Hollywood High who is not fluent in English might include language arts and math classes taught in Spanish, an ESL class and a sheltered physical education class. By the 12th grade, the student would receive instruction entirely in English.

According to McKenna, the Los Angeles Unified School District offers full- and modified-bilingual programs in Spanish, Armenian, Cantonese, Korean and Tagalog, the most widely spoken native language of the Philippines.

The recent wave of Soviet immigrant students to Hollywood-area schools could necessitate an addition to the list. But at present, the children are receiving mostly ESL and sheltered instruction, with some Russian-language support.

“We don’t have enough Russian reading materials for a bilingual program,” said Phillip Wright, a teacher and bilingual coordinator at Laurel Elementary School, where Russian is the primary language of about one-third of the students. “The parents opt not to have one. They want to get into the American mainstream as quickly as possible.”

At Wilton Place Elementary School near Koreatown, first-grade teacher Monica Kim teaches a full-bilingual program to 28 Korean students with limited English skills for 80% of the day. During the rest of the day, her Korean-speaking students are mixed with children who speak other languages, and the group receives sheltered English instruction in art, music and physical education.

As Kim’s students learn English, use of the sheltered technique is increased until the children are prepared to be mainstreamed with fluent English speakers.

Still another approach is taken at the Bellagio Road Newcomers School in the lush surroundings of Bel-Air. Opened in August, 1989, in an elementary school that had been closed because of low enrollment, Newcomers caters to immigrant students in grades 4 to 8 who have been in the United States for less than a year.

Students — including 12 from Grant this year — are bused from schools in the Mid-City and Hollywood areas as part of the voluntary program. They stay at Bellagio Road for one year, then enroll at schools near their homes.

At Bellagio Road, Spanish speakers are placed in a full- or modified-bilingual program, and students who speak other languages receive English-language instruction and sheltered teaching.

“The purpose of the Newcomers School is to provide students with a positive first-year school experience as they make the transition into American society and culture,” said Principal Julie Thompson.

At Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista, two kindergarten classes are participating in a voluntary two-way bilingual-immersion program. In each class, 50% of the students are not fluent in English, and 50% speak English as their primary language. Ninety percent of the curriculum is taught in Spanish, and 10% is taught in English. By the time the students reach the fourth grade, the program will shift so that 50% of the instruction will be in English, the other half in Spanish.

“The aim of the developmental program is to have bilingual, bi-literate students,” said Principal Rebecca Clough.

The Culver City and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School districts provide kindergarten through 12th-grade “language minority” students with ESL and sheltered instruction, and teach some classes only in English and some only in Spanish in their elementary schools.

Educators who are dealing with the polyglot classes say more training is necessary to make bilingual programs successful. The Center for Academic Interinstitutional Programs recently held a conference at UCLA attended by more than 350 junior and senior high school teachers who wanted to learn strategies for their bilingual, ESL and sheltered classrooms.

Although bilingual-ESL programs are expanding and the need to train and hire more teachers to implement them appears to be swelling, a recession economy, a projected shortfall in the state’s 1991-92 budget and a drop in state lottery proceeds are creating a feeling of uncertainty among parents and educators.

Because of the fiscal problems, the financially strapped Los Angeles Unified School District is struggling to balance its $3.9-billion 1991-92 budget.

An extensive district reorganization plan unveiled by Supt. Bill Anton to save $10 million would eliminate some bilingual-ESL management positions and shift much of the administration of the department from district headquarters to locally based management teams. By the 1992-93 school year, one goal of the plan will be to allocate funds to each school so that school councils composed of parents, teachers and administrators can make their own decisions regarding expenditures.

“The reorganization will help increase awareness of limited-English-proficient students’ needs,” McKenna said. “The plan will provide flexibility in getting more materials and teacher support for bilingual and ESL education.

“The kids are not going to go away.”

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