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L.A. Unified's English learner action upsets parents, teachers

As the district moves to enforce a policy of grouping pupils of similar English fluency ability together, those opposed protest.

October 19, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe
  • Cindy Jordan, right, mother of two students at Granada Elementary Community Charter in Granada Hills, joins about 50 parents protesting an L.A. Unified order to reorganize classes according to students' levels of English fluency. The move has sparked a storm of protests across the district.
Cindy Jordan, right, mother of two students at Granada Elementary Community… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Luis Gaytan, the 5-year-old son of Mexican immigrants who speak Spanish at home, was so terrified by kindergarten that he would barely talk — prompting classmates to tease that he didn't have a tongue.

In the last two months, at Granada Elementary Community Charter, Luis has gained a growing command of the language in a class of students with a mixed range of English ability. His father, Jorge, is convinced that his son is learning English more quickly because he hears it every day from more-advanced classmates.

But Luis — and thousands of other Los Angeles Unified students — is being moved into new classes with those at a similar language level under an order that has sparked a storm of protest. In recent weeks, a group of southeast L.A. principals have mounted a rare challenge to district policy, teachers have flooded their union office with complaints, and parents have launched protest rallies and petition drives urging L.A. Unified to postpone the class reorganizations until next year.

"Kids with little or no English are going to be segregated and told they're not good enough for the mainstream," said Cindy Aranda-Lechuga, a Granada mother of a kindergartner who gathered 162 parent signatures seeking a postponement and spoke against the policy at an L.A. Board of Education meeting last week. "Kids learn from their peers, and they're not going to be able to do that anymore."

Marking the latest chapter in California's fierce language wars, the furor over class placements for those learning English raises the controversial question of which is more effective: separating students by fluency level or including them in diverse classes. Critics are also upset that the change is coming two months into the school year, after students have bonded with classmates and teachers have developed classroom lessons and routines. Opponents blame the district and local schools for the disruption.

Although the district adopted segregated classes as official policy for all schools in 2000, it has not been widely practiced or enforced, according to officials from both L.A. Unified and the teachers union.

But that changed this year. L.A. Unified settled a complaint by the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which contended that the district had failed to provide adequate services to students learning English.

Katherine Hayes, the district's chief research scientist, told teachers last week that district data show that students placed in classes with peers of similar language level progress more rapidly toward fluency than those in mixed-level classes. But she added that the question had not been widely studied and more research was needed.

Norm Gold, an independent educational consultant who has worked in the field of English language development for more than 35 years, said that although studies are mixed, they tend to skew toward separating students based on their English ability.

"My experience tells me, in addition to research, that there is an absolute necessity for doing this kind of grouping," he said — adding, however, that students should be moved in a timely manner to new classes as their fluency improves.

Two experts in bilingual education with the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, said they support the district policy because limiting English levels in a class allows teachers to better focus instruction. And although students may learn "social English" from more fluent classmates, they are better able to learn the "academic English" appropriate for their level in more segregated classes, according to Cheryl Ortega, UTLA's director of bilingual education.

In a Sept. 9 letter to local Supt. Robert Bravo, however, 17 principals from South L.A. schools expressed disagreement with the policy. They argued that fluent English speakers serve as classroom role models for less proficient peers and that segregating students creates a "chasm" among them as well as "communities that are intolerant of those who are different."

In his written response, Bravo rejected the request to delay the moves and told principals they "may be subject to discipline" if they failed to reorganize their classes as directed.

One principal, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, said administrators believed they were following the spirit of the plan by trying to limit levels but also taking into account other factors, such as gender, gifted abilities and behavioral issues, to form well-balanced classes.

But the district plan requires English levels to be the top factor in forming classes. At one campus, three students with serious behavioral problems ended up in the same classroom; at another, some gifted children are set to be transferred out of the gifted teacher's classroom because she has been assigned to teach students with low levels of English.

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