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Dueling for an Education

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.

The irony is that dual language was once seen as an antidote for bilingual education, which wasn‘t really bilingual at all. The old, misnamed program typically sought to use instruction in Spanish to move students into all-English classes as soon as possible. In practice, this process could take years, ghettoizing Spanish-speaking students into substandard classes, frequently leaving them undereducated in any language. Prop. 227, by contrast, mandated that English learners be taught almost exclusively in English, though they can receive limited support in another language. Dual language is legal for these students as long as their parents sign waiver forms each year.

Unlike bilingual ed, which had to field all comers, dual language was conceived as accelerated, not remedial. And it’s a two-way deal: Classes are supposed to be half filled with fluent English speakers and half with students whose first language is something else. In reality, even many successful programs are unbalanced. Ivanhoe‘s has predominantly English-speaking Anglo students.

The first dual-language program in Los Angeles began on the Westside in 1990 at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School, where dual language remains stable to this day. But things are not going so well at Mark Twain Middle School, which takes Grand View’s graduates.

“All we get are English texts,” said Twain teacher Julissa V. Gallardo, who coordinates school programs for limited-English speakers. “It‘s difficult to teach students to read and write in Spanish when you don’t have it there in front of them.” Gallardo faults the school district for failing to provide necessary funding and materials. The science teacher, she noted, has had to labor long hours to translate sections of a 500-page science text from English to Spanish.

And forget the notion of an accelerated curriculum. The school backfills empty dual-language seats with recent immigrants, who are often poorly educated. “My algebra class is behind where it should be,” said Gallardo. Dual-language students entered middle school as the cream of the crop, but are now learning algebra at less than half the specified pace of the district‘s new beefed-up curriculum. In addition, Gallardo has a reverse-Ivanhoe problem: She can’t find enough native English speakers to participate.

Such a state of affairs is no wonder given the district‘s disorganization. Dual language is labor- and dedication-intensive; it thrives or withers on the whims, talents and attention spans of local administrators who have plenty else to worry about. Yet, no one in the L.A. Unified central bureaucracy manages or tracks dual language districtwide.

Caldera, the language-acquisition director, can provide guidance when it’s requested, “but we no longer provide direct training to schools. We don‘t have meetings directly with school personnel . . . We do our best to monitor each local district and get information about programs.”

And while there is some supervision of programs currently funded by grants, the real authority now rests with the 12 subdistricts, each headed by its own superintendent, added Caldera.

But her counterparts in the subdistricts aren’t necessarily asserting control either. The upshot is that something as simple as a change in principals can doom a dual-language program.

An exception is local District I, under Superintendent Sylvia Rousseau, where plans are in the works to expand Spanish dual language at Weigand Avenue Elementary in Watts into a schoolwide magnet program. And in District K, which runs south from Gardena, two schools have recently begun a Spanish dual-language program. Another exception is the Korean dual-language APOLO program, which oversees four elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school. With the addition of Fairfax High this year, L.A. Unified has become the only school district in the country with K-through-12 Korean dual language, said program adviser Craig Merrill. Its students typically score well above other students at the same schools. The APOLO office also has branched out to provide assistance to some Spanish dual-language efforts and could take on more, perhaps even Ivanhoe.

That prospect delights Ivanhoe parents, who‘ve never enjoyed much district assistance. To stem the recent crisis, they had to appeal to senior administrators and to school-board members -- Caprice Young and David Tokofsky quickly offered encouragement. The parents also involved state Assemblywoman Goldberg, a former school-board member. Goldberg immediately dialed up old friend Liliam Leis-Castillo, the local superintendent over Ivanhoe.

 

Finally, in April, Superintendent Castillo promised transitional funding so Ivanhoe would not be short on teachers. The dual-language parents also compromised, accepting a less-intensive format, one that is 50 percent in English almost from the start. As a result, Principal Collier will have more-flexible scheduling options and perhaps better test scores in English, especially since the new format makes room for phonics. (Phonics instruction has been notably absent in some dual-language programs.) And last week, Collier even agreed to join full bore in recruiting, so more Latino families from Ivanhoe’s own attendance area would sign up.

“This is a very big world, and we need to be working and speaking in more than one language,” said Assemblywoman Goldberg. “Languages tend to reinforce one another. Europe is a good example of a place where students are able to become multilingual. Are our kids more stupid?”

Third-grader Miles Melendrez offered his own testimonial: “When I grow up, when I go to work and there is a person who only speaks Spanish, I will understand. It‘s fun to understand two languages. It makes me proud.”


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