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Melting Pot : L.B. Schools Work to Assimilate Pupils of Many Tongues

March 02, 1986|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — There are times when the line at 7th Street and Daisy Avenue stretches clear out to the parking lot.

Arriving early by car or bus, parents steer their fidgety broods tentatively toward the three bungalows nestled on a corner of the elementary school campus there. Some of the families seem fearful; others just dazed.

For some of these immigrants, it is their first glimpse of an American school system. Once inside, they form a great dignified mass of humanity, quietly conversing in a dissonance of languages.

It's been called the Ellis Island of Long Beach. And indeed, the Assignment Center of the Long Beach Unified School District provides many newcomers with their initial impressions of a city seeking to make them its own.

An estimated 3,000 children accompanied by untold numbers of parents, relatives and neighbors passed through this unusual center at Edison Elementary School last year, according to Martha Estrada, program administrator.

Assigned to Suitable Programs

They came from a variety of backgrounds and for a host of reasons. Many were new to the country; some spoke limited or no English. Fresh from their native lands or other districts, the youngsters were greeted and enrolled in their own languages, tested for English proficiency, administered necessary immunizations and medical tests, and assigned to a school or learning program considered suitable to their needs.

The process takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days, but staffers say that most participants consider the time well spent.

"Where else could we go for help?" said Consuelo Ramirez, 30, who on a recent morning accompanied her mother and 10-year-old brother to the center to have the boy enrolled in school. Natives of Mexico, none in the family speaks English.

"Without the center we would never have been able to get an education for our child," Ramirez said through an interpreter.

The program started in 1981 after the district began noticing increasing numbers of non-English-speaking children entering its schools, particularly economic immigrants from south of the border and political refugees from Southeast Asia. That year, according to Lewis Prilliman, director of research, 11.6% of the district's students spoke limited or no English.

Since then the ratio has risen almost 2% each year, Prilliman said, reaching a high last spring of 18.7%, or 11,524 of the district's 61,750 students. Although total enrollment this year is nearly 64,000, he said, new figures on the number of non-English-speaking students will not be available until next month.

Enrollment Will Climb

Prilliman predicted, however, that non- or limited-English-speaking enrollment will continue to climb for at least the next 10 to 15 years, reaching close to 12,000 by 1987.

County education officials consider it a model for this type of program, and they say it is the only one of its scale operating in the county.

"The biggest problem has been finding (staff) who speak those languages and developing curriculum to teach" the children, the researcher said.

Much of the initial communication problem has now been solved by the Assignment Center, whose 31 full-time and 35 part-time staffers speak a total of 49 languages among them. By far, said Estrada, the largest group of students who pass through the center are Spanish speaking (60-65%), followed by those who speak Cambodian (about 33%). OthEr languages represented include Vietnamese, Lao, Hmong, Filipino/Tagalog, Samoan, Arabic, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, Thai, French, Italian and German.

Many staffers, Estrada said, are native speakers who were themselves part of earlier immigrant waves. Included on her staff, she said, is a former Vietnamese general, a former Cambodian government minister and translators with doctorates in education from other countries.

During peak enrollment periods, she said, the center processes as many as 90 youngsters a day.

Numerous Forms Filled Out

They begin in a waiting room where they and their families are met by staffers who answer questions in their native languages and help them fill out the myriad of detailed forms necessary for school enrollments.

Next, the children are taken to an adjacent bungalow where they are tested for verbal and written English skills as well as general knowledge in their own tongue.

The third stop in the process is yet another bungalow where the Long Beach Health Department gives various immunizations and medical tests required by the state. And finally they are returned to bungalow No. 1 where a counselor explains educational options and, based on the results of the language proficiency tests and the wishes of the parents, ultimately assigns the children to schools and/or special programs deemed appropriate.

Although the process can be completed in a few hours, Estrada said, it often takes several days, especially when families must leave to obtain documents or wait for the results of medical tests.

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