Peering down from the bench in Los Angeles Superior Court, Judge Robert B. Lopez interrupted a non-jury trial to urge the small audience to learn English and learn it well.
"You must command the language. That cannot be overemphasized," said Lopez, who has been a judge for 12 years.
The admonition was delivered to a group of Huntington Park High School students who in recent years emigrated from countries scattered around the globe.
The students were in the courthouse on a field trip as part of an intensive English instruction course for immigrant children offered by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves the largest population of immigrant students in the state.
The trips serve as a tool for "expanding the classroom wall or breaking it down," said Nina Glaudini, who trains teachers and visits the junior and senior high schools that participate in the federal Emergency Immigrant Education Assistance Program. The field trips immerse students in American culture as well as the English language, she said.
The students voluntarily take the six-week course during their school breaks. The federal program began last summer, but it was not until February that it was available for students whose schools are on year-round schedules, which means they have vacations staggered throughout the year.
'Highly Motivated' Students
"We felt we cheated the year-round students last year," said Lila Silvern, the district coordinator of immigrant programs, noting that 24,000 out of a total of 58,000 immigrants attend year-round schools like Huntington Park High. Students enrolled in schools with traditional calendars can enroll in the program this summer.
Silvern said students in the program--who come from countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the Soviet Union--are "highly motivated" to learn English in the voluntary course.
She said 3,000 students are taking the course during vacation breaks this spring, but that 12,000 students are expected to be served by summer's end.
Iris Maudalena Diaz, a 17-year-old student at Huntington Park High, said she gave up her vacation to take part in the class in order to help her with a career.
"I would like to learn English to do something in the future," said Diaz, who added that she wanted to be either an artist, journalist, lawyer or architect. The student spoke Spanish, explaining that she cannot "talk in English at length."
Diaz, who was born in El Salvador and has been in this country less than a year, said she was frustrated last week when, after the class visited Lopez's courtroom, she could not talk to a woman lawyer. "I wanted to talk to the lawyer but I don't know much English. I would like to talk with people from those careers so they could tell me about it," Diaz said.
Simmi Khullar, who has been in the country for less than a month, said she also wants to be a lawyer. "I can speak English but I want to learn American accent."
Khullar, who is from India, was introduced to something else besides the courthouse last week: an escalator.
"I'm scared," said the student as she teetered on the escalators whisking the class to the ground floor. "I've never been on one."
The supplemental program--which does not supplant formal English as a second language or English-as-a-Second-Language instruction--is being provided for students at 53 elementary schools, eight junior high schools and four high schools, including Huntington Park, Bell and South Gate high schools. The students must have been born outside of the United States and have attended U. S. schools for less than three years to be eligible for the program, Silvern said.
The school district received $2.7 million for the program last year and saw the amount increase to $4.3 million this year, said Edda Carballo-Brown, who works as a consultant overseeing the program for the state Department of Education. In school years 1984-85 and 1985-86, $30 million was available nationwide.
Carballo-Brown said the federal government saw this as a "way to support school districts that had a greater impact of immigrant children in their schools."
A state survey of the eligible schools showed that Los Angeles County is "saturated" with immigrant children, Carballo-Brown said. Los Angeles County has 95,576 immigrant children, and that Orange County has the second highest number with 18,130.
Silvern said immigrant children are concentrated in the downtown Los Angeles and Southeast Los Angeles County areas.
The primary goal of the program is to give students opportunities to practice speaking English, rather than learning from textbooks, said Maria Aeberhard, the Huntington Park High School teacher accompanying the group. "It's sort of like a total immersion."