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Strike Leaves Empty Seats at Adult School

October 25, 2003|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

In Room 120 of Evans Community Adult School one evening this week, Brenda "Johnnie" Burton was writing singular nouns on the chalkboard ("a hat ... a dress ... "), and soliciting their plurals ("hats," her students in the beginning English-as-a-second-language class replied

In Room 121, Judith CaJacob had projected onto a screen a drawing of workers moving boxes of various colors. "And where is the white box?" she queried her beginners, who were learning prepositions. "The white box is under the bleck box," they haltingly responded. "Not bleck," she corrected, "black."

The mix of students in the two classes was typical at Evans: Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans. Armenians and Taiwanese. Filipinos and Koreans.

Not typical was their number. Burton usually has 57 students filling the desks and overflowing onto chairs set along the walls. CaJacob normally has 50.

On this night, nine days into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority strike, Burton had 19 and her colleague 20.

Since the bus- and light-rail strike began Oct. 14, the attendance at Evans, the largest adult school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, has fallen by nearly half. On the second day of the strike, a Wednesday, 3,475 showed up for classes, compared with 6,714 the same day of the previous week.

The decline is particularly steep among those in the beginning phases of the school's largest program, English as a second language. Administrators and teachers say the beginners tend to be among the most recent immigrants, and thus less likely to have the language skills or social support systems to make alternative arrangements for transportation. Those in evening classes have an added concern, getting home or to jobs after dark.

Teachers said a significant number of students who were unable to get to class during the 2000 MTA strike, which lasted 32 days, never returned.

Intermediate ESL teacher Dianne Burke fears that the same thing will occur this time. "I'm very concerned about what will happen with the beginners," she said. "They're tender little plants whose vocabularies aren't big enough to sustain them yet. They often can't make arrangements with others in the school as easily. They're on their own, and those who end up walking simply become discouraged over time."

Burke's 1 p.m. "advanced low" ESL class has had relatively light attrition (six missing out of 35), but her 3:45 p.m. session has been hit hard, with only 11 of 35 students showing up for class on the fourth day of the strike.

Even in the best of times, said Johnnie Burton, it's not easy for beginning ESL students to face the frustration and lack of skills that go with trying to penetrate the new language. "It takes a lot of guts on the part of a lot of students to come to school in the first place," she said. "It's hard to motivate yourself to come to school after work -- to immerse yourself for 2 1/2 hours in a foreign language when you're tired. But every day they can make it here is one day they're closer to fitting into the larger society."

The missing students affect how the classes themselves are conducted. Many teachers try to slow down the progress of the curriculum, balancing new material with reviews of material previously covered, in the hope of not leaving the missing too far behind while they await the strike's end.

In addition, the smaller numbers tend to lower the verve and self-assurance of those who do make it to their desks. "It's really a group thing, and when a lot are missing, there's a real decline in energy and morale," Burton said. "They started as a group. At the beginning they're always so nervous and shy, and so much of their confidence comes as part of the group. Then, all of a sudden, we've emptied out. There's a lot of momentum that's missing now."

On a recent day, Taiwan native Gin Mai De La Feuillez, 53, was the first student to make it to Burke's 1 p.m. class, despite being unable to ride her accustomed buses. She sat sweating and fanning herself with a school brochure, having walked, for the second day in a row, 30 minutes down Sunset Boulevard.

"Maybe I'm going to stop coming to school," she said. "Maybe if they go two weeks, maybe I'll have to stop. When you're young, I think it's OK. If it's a short walk, it's OK. But this is a long walk."

Some classmates faced similar challenges. Mexican immigrant Ramon Huerta, 27, used in-line skates to reach class from his home in Highland Park. The trip, normally 15 minutes by bus, took him 30 minutes because he had to circumvent a stretch of the Pasadena Freeway. "The streets are very bad for roller-blading," he said, shaking his head.

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