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School's Day Has Passed

June 17, 2002

Many of the 390 elementary and middle school students who attend the Bellagio Road Newcomer Center in Bel-Air fled war-torn countries in Africa, were uprooted from Korea or ventured through Latin America to reach the United States. The culture of Los Angeles was foreign to them when they arrived. Most spoke little English. In other words, they are like most of the other 10,000 immigrant children who enter the L.A. Unified School District each year--which is why the financially strapped district made the right choice in deciding to end the Bellagio program.

The district buses the students to the tree-shaded oasis from Pico-Union, the Eastside and other neighborhoods many miles away. Transporting them costs more than half a million dollars a year, a luxury in an economic climate dominated by bone-deep budget cuts.

What is prudent financially is not always prudent educationally. But subdistrict Supt. Richard Alonzo made a persuasive case to the Los Angeles Board of Education that Bellagio's students can get the support they need at their home schools because they also are full of new arrivals.

Those services were not as available throughout the district 12 years ago when the special immigrant program opened. In 1989, grouping together older immigrant students from different countries was considered innovative. They could struggle with the difficulties of learning a new language and a new way of life during their first year in the United States without the stigma of being a foreigner.

Today, especially after 9/11, parents want to keep their children close to home, according to a district survey. Many immigrant parents also want their children to learn English as soon as possible. They prefer immersion classes, which start lessons in English on the first day of school. This approach became standard after 1998, when Proposition 227 eliminated most bilingual instruction.

Bellagio's students will feel at home on many campuses because children from more than 100 countries attend public schools in Los Angeles. The majority of children who start school in the LAUSD, including many born in Los Angeles, do not speak English. They all should get what they need. That will require sacrificing programs that serve a few students for the benefit of several hundred thousand children.

Fortunately, the many hard-working immigrants who will receive awards and scholarships at graduation ceremonies districtwide this month offer clear evidence that academic success is within every student's reach.

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