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L.A. Schools' Bilingual Program Failing, State Says


Thousands of junior and senior high students who are trying to learn English are stuck in unchallenging and remedial classes and are prevented from enrolling in basic courses they need to graduate, according to a scathing state audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District's bilingual education program.

Alarmed by a six-year trend in the giant district's failure to educate many secondary school students with English language deficiencies, acting state Supt. of Public Instruction William D. Dawson has threatened to withhold nearly $60 million for bilingual education if the district does not show dramatic improvements by December.

"There is no reason why better results are not being achieved," Dawson said. "We don't want to obstruct those funds, but we want to get results. . . . It seemed very clear to me that the plans that have been made in the past simply are not being executed in the classroom."

In response to the threat--which Dawson leveled at a meeting he called in Sacramento with Supt. Sid Thompson and school board President Leticia Quezada--the district has embarked on an ambitious plan to correct the problems.

Thompson vowed to make bilingual education for the district's 83,500 secondary school students who lack English fluency "my top instructional priority." Earlier this week, he ordered principals to immediately begin assessing their schools' performance.

Quezada, a leading supporter of the district's bilingual education plan, said that she was shocked to hear about the magnitude of the problem from state auditors, who first warned the district about the issues in 1987.

"This is a gross neglect of a significant population of students," Quezada said, adding that the results of two previous audits had never been brought to the school board. "I think the greatest message we can send out is that this neglect will not be allowed to exist anymore."

What was particularly embarrassing for the district, Quezada said, was that school officials selected the 83 schools that auditors visited last spring as examples of campuses with good bilingual programs.

District officials and bilingual education critics said the audit results are likely to fuel the emotional debate that surrounds the issue of how to best teach students who do not speak English.

State policy and the district's master plan call for students to be taught core classes, such as math and science, in their native language until they become proficient enough in English to succeed in regular classes.

"I think this clearly shows that the district is committed to a bilingual education policy that does not work," said Sally Petersen, a Los Angeles teacher and president of Learning English Advocates Drive, which advocates teaching students only in English. "We have a tragic situation here."

The audit by a team of 53 bilingual education experts found that:

* Although the district has a commendable plan for bilingual education on paper, there are woefully few qualified teachers and inadequate resources to carry out its goals in the classroom. More than 75% of the schools surveyed lacked qualified staff.

* More than half the schools do not provide English language courses appropriate for a student's proficiency level. Across the board, students with advanced English skills were enrolled in unchallenging classes.

* In some schools, significant numbers of students cannot enroll in more challenging courses conducted in English because they have not been prepared to take the required tests to show their proficiency level. The report covered most of the 640 limited-English speakers at Bell High School, 377 students at Polytechnic High School and 318 at Van Nuys High School.

* Special state and federal funds to provide extra resources for bilingual youths were inappropriately spent at some schools. Although state auditors did not find any evidence of fraud, 17 schools spent their special funds on items and services not approved by the government.

* School site officials generally do not understand existing district, state and federal policies and the district's own bilingual education policies are not being enforced.

"We found plenty of cases where students were not really in high school. They were in the building, but they were not getting an education," said Norm Gold, the state Department of Education's director of bilingual education compliance. "They would take a couple of classes (in English as a second language) and go to PE (physical education). Maybe they would take one elective, a basic math class and possibly not understand any of it."

In a typical secondary school classroom of limited-English speakers, Gold said, auditors found English books on the shelves and a monolingual teacher without a bilingual aide to translate material in the students' native language.

"Children who might have skills in algebra and geometry are in basic math classes," he said. "Their academic progress is restricted only because they don't speak English well enough."

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