The major challenge facing Orange County schools in the coming decades will be educating a growing non-English-speaking population, the program director of a public educational agency believes.
In Orange County from 1981 to 1984, the Asian population increased by 20% while the Latino population grew by 11%, but the teaching force has remained primarily white, said Patricia Milazzo, the assistant director of programming.
"We have to take English-speaking teachers and make them better at educating non-English students. The white teaching base is not going to change for years," she said.
Preparing schools for that task is among the priorities of the Southwest Regional Laboratory for Educational Research and Development in Los Alamitos.
Using the latest technology, the agency develops educational tools, including textbooks, tests and videotapes and provides consultation and data-base information to school districts nationwide, she said.
Created by Congress along with 25 other similar research and development labs in the mid-1960s, the laboratory has survived federal budget cuts that have reduced the number of labs to 11, Milazzo said.
"The more esoteric think-tank types did not survive," she said.
Although much of the work accomplished within the aluminum and glass building is research, the agency concentrates on developing tools to help solve problems immediately.
The purpose of this agency is to deal with such practical problems as how to help a substitute teacher in the classroom.
The laboratory developed a substitute teacher portfolio that gives the substitute a specific lesson plan for students instead of having them do busywork until the full-time teacher returns, Milazzo said.
"It seems like a simple problem, but a lot of material is lost when teachers are absent," she said.
The agency's 60 employees work to bridge the gap between theories on education and implementing them in classrooms.
"There is often as much as an eight-year gap between a problem emerging in the schools and the publication of material like textbooks to combat it," the agency's executive director, Richard Schutz, said.
"Everyone is interested in improving education, but they take problems that are interesting to them, not necessarily the widespread ones," Schutz said.
After conducting a needs assessment in the Southwestern states, the agency has focused its attention on a "laundry list" of problems it will attack in the coming years, Schutz said.
Two of the most serious problems for Southern California school districts will be teaching non-English-speaking immigrant children and stopping students from dropping out of school, Milazzo said. The agency is advocating teaching children in their native language.
But bilingual education should not become remedial education, Milazzo said. "The whole idea is to keep them off a remedial track," she said.
The programs developed by the agency would build on the students' previous education in their native language.
"Most students come here with some education. A majority of non-English-speaking students can read and write. We are ignoring that these kids have reading capabilities just because they can't read English," she said. "Actually the Spanish texts use more sophisticated literature than English texts at an earlier age," she added.
So instead of teaching concepts which students had already mastered, the agency developed a method to teach Spanish-speaking students the essential English necessary to read English texts, she said.
Schutz said developing verbal and math proficiency exams in the native language of bilingual students could enable them to outscore students tested in English.
The agency produced two videotape films in the area of bilingual education for Orange County, she said. One was an instructional film for Spanish-speaking parents about the role of the Parent Teachers Assn. and another is used in training bilingual teachers, she said.
Another idea still in the planning stages that would help non-English-speaking parents is a voice-activated computer with data on students, Milazzo said. A parent could request the file on a student through the computer that would not recognize the difference in languages, she said.
Along with improving bilingual education, the agency has been developing methods to combat the drop-out problem that plagues the Latino population, she said.
Finding the students who are potential dropouts is easy, but stopping them from leaving school is difficult, Milazzo said. Even 50% of the students who are placed in continuation schools eventually leave.
Agency research has found that providing a combination of school and work helps keep potential dropouts in school until graduation, Milazzo.
By offering a streamlined curriculum or more practical courses such as drafting, students can learn and successfully enter the work force, she said.
Building on students' accomplishments instead of on their failures is a key to many of the programs developed in the agency, Schutz said.
"They have to be given pride in themselves. If they are shown they can accomplish something, they will have higher expectations and goals for themselves. You have to make the kid successful," he said.