A Lesson in Change

Susannah Rosenblatt, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 11, 2007

“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Test scores have fallen below state targets, drawing scrutiny from Sacramento. The school has missed its goals on the Academic Performance Index for the last three years, scoring 692 on a scale of 1,000 last year. (It slipped compared to schools with similar demographics, dropping from a four to a two on a scale of 10 last year.)

With no district orientation for new arrivals, immigrant students without strong language skills are at an immediate disadvantage in the classroom, Principal Eric Reinhard said—thrown into the curriculum before they have even learned their way around. San Jacinto School District officials are discussing implementing an orientation program next school year.

Park Hill must lift its performance for two consecutive years or a team of experts could step in to essentially take over the school. Teachers must adhere to strict guidelines, scheduling virtually every minute of the day. Art, social studies, physical education and library visits have all been drastically reduced.

State oversight has “brought about good things,” Jones said. But now instead of reading to youngsters, Jones said she, like the rest of the faculty, must spend much of her time filling out paperwork to prove the school is meeting state goals.

In the process, she said, “Hopefully, we don’t lose sight of the students, of the children.”

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About six of the 16 second-grade students in Shelley Yager’s classroom are English learners.

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Homework must be self-explanatory. That means no new material or complicated English instructions, because many parents can’t read them.

Parents’ limited involvement can be frustrating: Last year, just three parents out of 18 in Yager’s class showed up for Back to School night.

Part of the problem is cultural: In Mexico, parents are often discouraged from visiting schools, said literacy coach Robin Navarro. Being asked to campus often carries a negative implication.

At Park Hill, teachers say they need all the help they can get. Each year, about 10% of the school’s experienced teachers leave, Reinhard said. He attributes the turnover to the desire to relocate, work a traditional school year and perhaps find a less pressured environment.

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As Park Hill struggles to accommodate such newcomers, Ann Helsel worries that her son Billy, a San Jacinto Valley native, is being overlooked. In her view, teachers are spending too much time with children who know the least.

“How much special treatment should [this non-English-speaking] child get, which is taking away from my child?” Helsel said.

After Billy graduates from Park Hill this school year, Helsel is thinking of leaving San Jacinto, where she has lived since childhood. It has lost its familiar, small-town feel, she said.

The family would not be the first to leave; whites in the district have dropped from 42% to a little more than 25% in a decade.

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