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First-Day Language Tests Put Kids Into the Right Classes


The first day of school is usually one for picking desks, making friends and boasting of summer exploits. For more than 100 newcomers to the multiethnic Garden Grove Unified School District, however, Thursday began with tests.

The placement tests, measuring fluency in English, are an annual ritual in the district and others across the state that find themselves with ever more diverse student bodies.

By law, students from homes where a language other than English is spoken must be tested. The results help place them in an appropriate classroom, either with help in learning English or in mainstream classes if they are fluent.

It's a task that has grown complex over the years. In Garden Grove schools alone, more than 40 languages are spoken. Of those students still learning English--roughly half the district's 50,000 pupils--about two-thirds speak Spanish, a quarter speak Vietnamese and the rest speak languages such as Korean, Punjabi, Urdu and French.

Determining what language the children speak isn't always simple. A few years ago, two Korean girls were waiting to be tested, one district worker said. A Korean translator was called in, but after a few minutes, the translator determined the girls didn't speak Korean; they'd grown up in El Salvador and spoke only Spanish.

"It is an education for us," said Jay Heck, supervisor of the Garden Grove district's assessment and registration center next to Dr. A.J. Cook Elementary School.

Early Thursday, a line snaked around the center's portable buildings on Woodbury Road, with parents clutching registration papers, and children stifling yawns.

Josefina Perez, 24, was one of the first in line, accompanied by daughters Itzel, 8 and Itzayana, 6. The family arrived from Mexico just a few weeks ago, and the girls speak no English.

"That's what worries me the most," Perez said in Spanish.

Her daughters weren't concerned, though. "I'm really excited," Itzel said. "I'm going to go to school and learn English."

The center opened 14 years ago in a single room at the Cook campus. Garden Grove education officials, like others in surrounding towns, saw the coming wave of immigrant families settling in Orange County. Neighboring Santa Ana Unified School District opened a similar center a year earlier.

Such centers make it more efficient to process newcomers, officials said. Parents can be told of school requirements and students can be tested more consistently. Some centers even offer immunization shots.

"This is really nice," said Scott Amrini, 32, waiting in line with stepdaughter Dalouny, 7. "I don't have to go to my doctor for the shots. She's really excited and can't wait to go to school."

Dalouny arrived from Laos in March with Amrini's new wife. The mother is still learning English herself, so Amrini took the day off to register their daughter.

Farther down the line, Adrianna Cortez, 29, admonished her restless son, Renee, 5, who kept wandering off and using handrails as a jungle gym. Cortez is bilingual in Spanish and English. Her son, the youngest of four, speaks only English, although he understands Spanish.

Because of a quirk in the law, even those fluent in English still must be tested if they are exposed to a different language at home.

"It is a reality of the times,'' said Cortez, surveying the diverse group of families in the line.

Inside the buildings, the center's staff of almost 40 was busy handling papers and testing the children. Although the district registers most of its new students earlier in the summer, many parents show up on the first day of school.

On less busy days, the center also serves as a bridge between non-English-speaking parents and the district. The staff translates mailers into several languages and interprets during meetings.

Earlier this year, during the kidnapping and murder case of Samantha Runnion, who was a student in the district, the center mailed letters to calm concerned parents.

"The melting pot is getting bigger," said Roberta Watkins, the center's administrative secretary. "I am just so proud of this place."

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