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Alhambra Schools Tutor Immigrants : Learning the ABCs of America

March 10, 1988|CRAIG QUINTANA | Times Staff Writer

The teacher explains a complicated concept in Spanish to the three Latino students bunched against the far wall. A dozen Asian students, unfazed that the explanation is in a foreign language, listen intently.

No matter who asks the question, the answer usually comes in a foreign language because the subject--and the problem--is English.

"What is this? Tell me what this is," asks the teacher, waving a picture in front of the class.

"Principal's office," responds a chorus heavy with Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish accents.

This diverse group of students is taking part in a special orientation program for newly arrived immigrants about to begin classes in the Alhambra School District. In a district in which Anglo students are a minority and immigrants--primarily Asians--make up most of the student body, educators have taken a novel approach to coping with language and cultural problems.

Each day at separate elementary and high school centers, about 180 students with limited English skills, uncertain prior schooling and disparate upbringings take lessons aimed at easing them into the American school system. In a little more than two months, students learn how to survive and succeed in classes taught by instructors who speak mostly English.

Each day, the high school students in Ana Santomauro's class write in journals. The point is to get them comfortable with writing in English, said teaching aide Kim Hong.

"We advise them, 'If you can't write in English, write in what you do best,' " he said. "We have a feeling once they can handle something in their own language, they will adopt it in English." Journal pages posted in the hallway in the center at San Gabriel High School affirm Hong's theory.

Two dozen students, whose first entries were in Chinese, Vietnamese or Spanish, proclaimed their success near the end of their semester at the center.

"This is my first day writing English," wrote one student. "It makes me happy."

But adjusting to English and life in California isn't the only culture shock experienced in class. Each semester, friction created by the students' differing backgrounds must be worked out.

"Maybe one of the Chinese kids will point to another and say, 'You're a communist,' " Hong said. "But we tell them they're here now, and that doesn't matter anymore. It gets better."

Latino students, who are generally more private, can be annoyed or intimidated by the directness of their Asian classmates.

"Sometimes we have to pull them aside and explain that because of their backgrounds, where they may be refugees and have had to struggle for everything . . . they press a little," Santomauro said.

Outside the high school classroom sits a Ping-Pong table that is constantly in use during recess. At the beginning of the semester, Asian students play only with Asians, Latinos only with Latinos.

"After a while, (Asians) don't even notice that they're playing with the Hispanic kids," said Scott Magnusson, program director at the high school center. "They just want to play with their friends."

Santomauro said the children share a common bond that eventually overrides cultural or political differences.

"They have different backgrounds, but they all have to learn English," she said. "They all have to speak it once they transfer to their home school. As time goes on, they see they have the same needs; they get more relaxed" with one another.

These classes are only a small part of the district's Assessment and Orienta tion Program.

The program tests all students who do not speak English at home. They are tested for literacy and language skills in both English and their native language.

"We have a need brought on by these kids coming into our schools," said Deputy Supt. Heber Meeks. "We had to have someone go and evaluate them in their own languages."

Based on the scores, most of the students move into regular courses that often cater to limited-English proficiency.

Physical Exams

All students entering the assessment program also undergo physical examinations, which often uncover maladies ranging from scoliosis (curvature of the spine) to diseases associated with malnutrition. "It's scary," Meeks said. "Almost all the kids have something wrong with them."

Last year, the program placed 3,287 newcomers into the 20,000-student district, which has schools in Alhambra, San Gabriel and Monterey Park.

According to a recent survey, one of every six California schoolchildren is an immigrant. In the Alhambra district, the ratio is one in two.

Over the past decade, Asian enrollment in the district has more than doubled, while the percentage of Anglo students has dropped dramatically. Asians, 20% of the student body in 1978, now make up half. Over the same period, Latino enrollment has hovered around 35%, while Anglo enrollment has slipped from 45% to 14%.

Constant Influx

As a result, the district has been faced with a constant influx of non-English speaking students, some eloquent in their native languages, some illiterate.

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