Teaching Russian may be the loneliest job in town.
As few as five of the 200-plus high schools, public and private, in Los Angeles and Ventura counties offer programs in the language of Gogol and Gorbachev.
In Pasadena, Long Beach, West Los Angeles, Camarillo and Studio City, five Russian teachers instruct handfuls of students, exotics in a world where more and more study Spanish.
There are 11 Russian teachers in all of California's public schools, a state education department spokesman said. By comparison, the state has 2,180 Spanish teachers, 64 Latin teachers. None of the Russian teachers instructs in the language full time. Most teach German or another language, as well. Locally, one also teaches algebra, another health.
Twenty years ago, far more American students knew that Pravda is not just the name of the Soviet Union's leading newspaper; it is also the Russian word for truth. Once fairly common in the high school curriculum, Russian has fallen on hard times, apparently buffeted by everything from a boom in the study of Spanish to changing American attitudes toward the Soviet Union.
But even as they worry about extinction, local Russian teachers hope that glasnost--the recent spirit of openness in and toward the Soviet Union--will give their profession its biggest boost since the 1957 launching of Sputnik.
Polytechnic School, a co-ed private school in Pasadena, began offering Russian language courses last year, teacher Kathleen Dillon said. Earlier Dillon had taught "one little course" in Russian for seniors who had already completed the school's foreign language requirement.
Dillon, who started as a French and Spanish teacher at Polytechnic, is finishing a doctorate in Russian literature at the University of Southern California.
"It was really a case of my learning a little Chinese or a little Russian," she recalled of her desire to branch out into non-Romance languages. "I decided on Russian because of the literature. Of course, there's no such thing as studying a little Russian. I became so enamored I couldn't stop."
Polytechnic is interested in building a full-fledged Soviet studies program, said Dillon, who also teaches courses in Russian literature and history. The school believes that such a program would contribute to the kind of international understanding that ensures peace, she said.
Helen Skvor, who teaches Russian at the Center for International Commerce at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, said she has noticed a surge in opportunities for teachers and students of Russian--everything from cultural exhibits to exchange programs--since President Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev began to attend each other's dinner parties.
"Even getting pen pals is easier," said Skvor, who has 25 students in both her beginning and her advanced Russian classes.
The Center for International Commerce is a Long Beach Unified School District program that teaches high school students about world trade. The center offers instruction in Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Russian. Most of the students opt to study Japanese, Skvor said. Russian has about the same enrollment as Chinese.
Skvor's instructional materials include some of the Russian preschool books her toddler enjoys at home, such as the story of "The Naive Lion Cub" who discovers that mother knows best.
Asta Aristov, the sole teacher of Russian in the Los Angeles Unified School District, also believes that glasnost is a cause for optimism for her endangered profession. "Things are looking up again," she said.
Aristov, who teaches Russian, German and health at University High School in West Los Angeles, has seen interest in the language wax and, more notably, wane since she joined the faculty as a Russian and biology teacher in 1966.
Aristov had five sections of Russian at the high school in 1971-72. "That was the golden age," she said. Her advanced students were so fluent they could read Dostoevsky in the original, and the class occasionally did mathematics problems in Russian just for fun.
Today, Aristov has one class of 17 students, almost all of them beginners. She finds time during every class to work with her three advanced students and keeps her two native speakers busy while she drills the beginners on the basics.
Along with improved science courses, Russian was added to the curriculum in many schools after the Soviets beat the United States into space by launching Sputnik, the first satellite. In 1965, at the peak of the rush to catch up, 27,000 students were studying Russian in American public high schools, according to the U. S. Department of Education.
Since then, enrollment has dipped to 6,000. In 1985 almost 30 times as many students took Latin as Russian. Spanish, which has displaced French as the most popular foreign language in American schools, had an enrollment of 2,334,000 in 1985.