By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Steve Melendrez knew there’d be tough days when he signed up two of his sons for a new program at Ivanhoe Elementary, one that promised to make them fluent and literate in both English and Spanish.
Melendrez‘s language is English, despite his Latino surname, and when his sons needed help, Melendrez started dialing desperately: “Doing homework is tough. We have to call all over Silver Lake to understand one word.” Often, he had to accept that he could neither keep up nor help out the way he wanted.
But he never expected what happened in February. In this, the fourth year of the “dual language” program, the school’s administration talked suddenly of phasing it out: no new kindergartners in, no more Spanish instruction for the first students, the ones who‘d started in 1998.
Parents such as Melendrez felt perplexed and even betrayed. Here, finally, was an academically rigorous program that accomplished a laudable goal; it made students truly bilingual. And yet, administrators wanted it shut down -- even though the school had pointedly asked parents to commit for a full six years. Melendrez had ultimately enrolled all three of his boys, and now the district was breaking its commitment.
Spanish dual language is in decline or has disappeared at four of the 10 district schools that have offered the program. This turn of events is remarkable, given that many educators have viewed dual language as the path of the future, a sure method of making children biliterate. In L.A. especially, where business and life transpire in many tongues, language skills translate to job skills, above and beyond their value for bridging cultures. When the Ivanhoe parents engaged the fight to save dual language, however, they came face to face with a school-district bureaucracy focused elsewhere: on high-stakes testing, financial woes and an overall academic program that has yet to make the grade in English.
At Ivanhoe, the parents’ foes included some other parents, whose children were in the school‘s regular classes. The critics asserted that dual language takes an unfair share of resources and might eventually crowd out neighborhood students from the undersized campus. Some teachers complained that dual language forced them to teach mixed grade levels, classes that combined fourth- and fifth-graders, for instance.
In addition, the school is now run by a second-year, first-time principal with no personal investment in Ivanhoe’s dual-language program. And, unluckily, her arrival coincided with a noticeable dip in test scores -- not long after Ivanhoe‘s high scores had merited a front-page story in the L.A. Times. Dual language became an obvious target because it focuses most intensively on the foreign language -- the language other than English -- early on. And the standardized tests used to rank schools are given in English.
“There is a dip for the English-speaking students -- because they are learning in another language -- and for the Spanish-speaking students too -- because they don’t speak English as well,” said Rita Caldera, director of the Language Acquisition Branch for L.A. Unified. “By the fourth and fifth grades, you should start seeing a turnaround.”
School administrators, however, are evaluated in the here and now, by a state-administered rating called the API, which is based solely on the scores of tests given in English. “Your API is dependent on those scores,” said Caldera, a proponent of dual language. “That is what is published in the newspapers. You‘re either good or bad based on the scores.”
Or, as state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg put it, “If I’m a principal and my test scores are lagging, I‘m thinking, ’Oh, my god, I‘m out of here.’”
The state‘s class-size reduction program, which lasts through grade three, created another squeeze, limiting the school’s enrollment. And now, the original dual-language group, which comprises third- and fourth-graders, has only 17 students. Other upper-grade classes have 30, and that number could swell amid the school district‘s current budget crisis. Principal Mary Jane Collier, whose school has received no extra money for dual language, faced the unpopular prospect of having to lay off a current teacher and make other classes larger to keep dual language going. Is it any wonder, then, that she signaled her intention to end the program at a February 27 schoolwide meeting?
Similar pressures have weighed on the handful of other dual-language programs in L.A. Unified. Dual language at Hamlin Street Elementary, in Canoga Park, will probably fold at the end of June. Nearby Limerick Avenue Elementary is phasing out its program. “The whole swing of things has changed,” said Limerick principal Dora Pimentel-Baxter. “We are focusing on getting our students to adopt the English language. There hasn’t been anyone who‘s called up and wanted dual language for their kindergarten student.” And the test scores of dual-language students, she added, were low compared to other students.
A dual-language program at Columbus Middle School, also in Canoga Park, shut down in June 1999. A school coordinator said dual language couldn’t survive Proposition 227, the voter-approved initiative that did away with traditional bilingual education. The school interpreted the law as forbidding recruitment for any non-English program.