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Special School for Immigrants to Close

Education: Decision reflects costs, shift in philosophy. Backers call campus an oasis.

June 13, 2002|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bellagio Road Newcomer Center, a leafy Bel-Air refuge for children who recently immigrated to Los Angeles, will close at the end of this month, a casualty of budget cuts and changing ideas about educating youngsters from other countries.

Emphasizing intensive language instruction and social acculturation, Bellagio is among only a few such schools across the nation, including facilities in Sacramento, San Francisco and New York City.

The Los Angeles Board of Education voted 4 to 2 to close the 12-year-old Bellagio program last month, citing declining enrollment and inefficiencies at the 390-student campus. Bus transportation alone cost the district $550,000 a year. And district leaders such as school board member Marlene Canter, who represents the area, say the facility would be better used as a charter school to lure middle-class families away from private schools.

Bellagio's demise represents a philosophical shift within the Los Angeles Unified School District since voters' approval in 1998 of the anti-bilingual education measure, Proposition 227. Some district officials say immigrant children should be educated at their neighborhood schools rather than at special centers--echoing decentralization trends like the mainstreaming of special education students. They also contend that Bellagio coddles immigrant students by failing to follow district standards on reading and testing.

But the campus' supporters say it has been a rare oasis for new immigrants in a large and bewildering school district that often fails even native-born English speakers. They say Bellagio has provided immigrant students with knowledgeable teachers sensitive to their needs.

Even critics of the newcomer center agree that the district must do a better job at educating Los Angeles' immigrant student population. About 10,000 such students enroll at L.A. Unified schools each year, officials say.

'Not Enough Services'

"There are not enough services out there for these kids," said Rita Caldera, supervisor of bilingual and immigrant education programs throughout the overcrowded district. "One psychologist and one social worker is not enough in a school of 2,000 or 3,000 children."

Some of Bellagio's students had never been inside a classroom before arriving in Los Angeles. An ongoing joint study by L.A. Unified and the Rand Corp. think tank has found that one-third of all new immigrant children in the district were exposed to violence in their home countries before immigrating and show symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. That figure does not include a significant number traumatized during their trek to America, researchers say.

Every morning school buses ferry children from hardscrabble downtown neighborhoods, past massive estates adorned with bougainvillea vines and copper gates, to Bellagio. Set against the Santa Monica Mountains, Bellagio is a complex of buildings with shaded walkways and lavender bushes planted by a band of Bel-Air volunteers.

Few Discipline Issues

Teachers say there are few discipline problems, although there have been occasional spats between Latino and Korean students, the two largest ethnic groups at the school. Two-thirds of Bellagio's students come from Latin America, and 18% come from Korea. Most of the rest are from China, Armenia or Africa. Bellagio's students range from third to eighth grade and are supposed to stay no more than one year, though nearly 30% remain longer.

Williams Bonilla, 15, has been at Bellagio for more than two years. He made a one-year trek alone to California from Honduras, leaving behind his mother and their cardboard shanty. The journey took so long because he walked and hitched rides on trains most of the way. Occasionally he stopped in a town to work and make some money.

"Sometimes I didn't eat nothing," he said. After living on the street for several months in Los Angeles, he was adopted by a local family who enrolled him at Bellagio, the first school he had ever attended.

Now he reads motorcycle magazines and speaks halting English.

'I Came Here to Work'

"I came here to work and get money for my family," he said. "But now I want to stay in school so I can be something in life."

Bellagio was the state of the art in immigrant education when the program opened in 1989. The former elementary campus had been unused for years, because most of the neighborhood families sent their children to private schools.

"The intent was to have several schools like Bellagio all over the city," said Rose Marie Durocher, who formerly headed the Immigrant Student Assessment and Placement Center at Plasencia Elementary School northwest of downtown. From thousands of immigrant youngsters, that center referred to Bellagio only those who had extreme difficulty with English, were illiterate or had emotional problems related to circumstances in their native countries.

Now, Durocher said, the philosophy is "these children need to be assimilated immediately."

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