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A lesson in adaptation

As more immigrant families locate in outlying areas, schools struggle to cope with changes in their student bodies' needs, such as help with basic English.

February 11, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

"What's that?" Jenny Wright asks fourth-grader Michael Lopez, pointing to a drawing of a foot.

The boy shrugs.

This fall afternoon, as the rest of Wright's remedial reading class at Park Hill Elementary School in San Jacinto completes language exercises on worksheets or computers, Wright is coaching her newest student, Michael, one on one.

He knows what a foot is, of course, but to him it's el pie. The 9-year-old arrived last year from Culiacan, Mexico, and speaks barely a word of English.

"What's that?" the teacher prompts, moving to a picture of grass. Another shrug.

"Grass. Does grass have the same ending as glass?"

Michael nods. As he laboriously colors the grass with green marker, Wright casts a harried look at the two dozen other pupils reading at their desks.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 95 words Type of Material: Correction
Bilingual education: An article in Sunday's California section about Park Hill Elementary School in San Jacinto said bilingual education was not an option there. In fact, state law requires that if the parents of 20 or more students in a grade obtain waivers from the state law that curtailed bilingual education, such instruction must be offered. Short of that, parents who obtain such a waiver may send their children to other schools with bilingual programs. At Park Hill, parents have not sought such waivers and the school has no plans to implement such a program.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction
Bilingual education: An article in the Feb. 11 California section about San Jacinto's Park Hill Elementary School said bilingual education wasn't an option there. In fact, state law requires that if the parents of 20 or more students in a grade get waivers from the state law that curtailed bilingual education, such instruction must be offered. Short of that, parents who get a waiver may send their children to other schools with bilingual programs. Park Hill parents haven't sought waivers and the school has no plans to implement a program.

Scenes such as this unfold in nearly every classroom on Park Hill's tidy campus, where teachers struggle daily to balance the intense needs of immigrant students with the overall demands of educating everyone.

Instructors at Park Hill, however, are more strained than most. In the more than 16 years since it opened its doors, the suburban Riverside County school has seen a dramatic rise in "English language learners" -- mostly Latino immigrants. The tally has risen from nearly none in 1995 to 362 as of this month -- one of the steepest increases in the region. Such students now account for more than 40% of the student body.

"It would be great to have much smaller classes and be able to give more attention to everybody," Wright said. "That would be ideal."

Instead, "You just do what you can."

Each day at the school is a lesson in patience, frustration and adaptability, offering a glimpse of the challenges that arise as immigrant families around the nation spread from metropolitan centers and older suburbs into fast-developing outlying areas.

The trend is sharply evident in Southern California. A Times analysis showed that between 2000 and 2005, the latest year for which data are available, the enrollment of English learners increased in 80% of San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura County elementary schools -- making them look a lot more like campuses in the traditional immigrant gateways of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

At Park Hill, the change has been especially dramatic, and the staff is rushing to adapt. Just four of about 40 teachers are fluent in Spanish. Although bilingual teachers are preferred among new hires, veterans such as Wright sometimes labor to communicate -- using pictures, ad hoc Spanish phrases and, in a pinch, student translators.

A formal bilingual education program is not an option. In 1998, Californians voted to curtail the controversial practice in public schools.

"For me the hardest thing is keeping up with the pace," Wright said. "If they don't get something the first time, there's not a lot of time to go back."

Park Hill, like every other public school, must hew to strict state and federal accountability standards -- even as some students arrive unable to formulate a basic question in English, let alone read a sentence or write their name.

Teachers say they struggle to engage immigrant students and involve their parents, only to see many families leave in search of better jobs in other towns.

Then there are the parents of English-speaking pupils who worry that their children are being shortchanged.

And yet, there are small successes every day.

In Wright's classroom, she asks for Lopez's homework. "La tarea," she says. He pulls out the rumpled sheet with words like "do" and "to" written five times each.

Wright is pleased. In just a short time, Lopez has learned to write simple sentences and read from simple books -- "This is a cat. That is a cat" -- in his soft, accented English.

The boy's progress, she said, is "amazing."

*

Librarian Debi Jones started working at Park Hill when it opened in 1990. The school was the pride of the district, tucked into a neighborhood of new homes near parks and playgrounds.

Its few hundred students, most of them white, could walk to school. "We were like all this little community, all the middle-class people coming in" to volunteer, Jones said. Parents "maybe had a little more money, a little more time."

In the last several years, a boundary change brought several apartments and mobile home parks into the district, and the area's population swelled with families seeking affordable housing. Park Hill now has more than 860 pupils and operates year round.

These days, "we hardly get any volunteers" in the library, Jones said. "Parents are either working or they don't feel confident speaking English." Jones laments that teachers don't send their classes to the library as they used to; there isn't time.

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