Small Victories, New Concepts of Success
When Jaime Castellon came home with a ribboned medal and two trophies for winning races as a member of Hollywood High School’s junior varsity swimming team, his mother was quick to act. Proudly, she set the prizes in the most prominent place in the Castellon household, atop the family’s color television console.
“As soon as people come in the door, they see the trophies,” said Jaime, slightly embarrassed by the attention they bring.
Swimming awards are only the most visible signs of progress the 16-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant has made as his first year of school in the United States winds down.
The confusion that marked his first days in Hollywood after he emigrated more than a year ago has all but disappeared. With three weeks of class left, he no longer runs to Spanish-speaking friends to find his way around the school’s maze-like campus. His report cards are studded with A’s and B’s. His English has improved to the point where he can converse, however haltingly, with fellow students.
Jaime Castellon’s successes, like so many at Hollywood High School, proceed on a modest scale. A tortuous sentence spoken with perfect diction, a once-difficult paragraph now mastered, a formerly strange American custom suddenly adopted--all are the small victories that mount up over a school year.
They are cherished victories in a school starved for success. Each year, the published results of California’s standardized tests bring bleak news to the school’s students and teachers. Although the last year has shown a slight improvement in the school’s overall scores--the most encouraging was this year’s five-point increase in the spelling portion of the California Assessment Program test--Hollywood High still ranks poorly among other schools in Los Angeles and across the state.
The gap between Hollywood High’s test score failures and its smaller, personal successes raises fundamental questions about how an immigrant student population affects a school’s mission and whether that mission itself should change.
“You really start wondering whether we should redefine our entire notion of success,” said Ray Miller, a Hollywood High physics teacher who doubles as the school’s statistician. “As long as we have huge numbers of new arrivals from foreign countries each year, there’s no way for our test scores to improve dramatically.”
This year, for the first time, the California Department of Education used students’ language proficiency as a factor in evaluating the California Assessment Program tests. But to the disappointment of Miller and other teachers at Hollywood High, the language factor apparently did little to change the school’s overall scores.
“Language proficiency didn’t seem to carry much weight,” Miller lamented. “The scores don’t show much change at all.”
Even if they had, the language-affected scores are not reported by newspapers and television. “We’d still get the same bum rap,” Miller said.
Over the last school year, Hollywood High Principal Willard Hansen has directed a school-wide effort to bring the scores up. Teachers have given test-taking pointers to their students and, in some classes, spent additional time on the kinds of questions often asked on the standardized tests.
Effort Paid Off
To Hansen, the extra effort has paid off. “The scores are up some,” he said. “We’re going to get them as high as they can conceivably go. These are our report cards to the public.”
But most teachers expect the improvements to continue in minor increments at best, as long as Hollywood High is flooded each year by a new wave of immigrants. The school’s scores are hurt most, teachers and administrators say, when English-poor emigre students taking the tests are confronted by words they have never seen before.
Until she took the state’s Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills last month, Yue-Hua Pai thought she was making progress. The 16-year-old immigrant from Taiwan who calls herself “Kitty” has been a model student in her 11th-grade English-as-a-second language class, with an above-B average.
But two grueling hours with the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills--her first encounter with an American standardized test--left Kitty Pai stunned. “So many of the words I never saw before,” she said. “All my friends thought it was hard.”
“The immigrant kids don’t react well to the state tests,” said Steve Sloan, who heads Hollywood High’s English-as-a-second-language program. “The ones who are motivated come out of the tests with a sense that they’ve failed, that the progress they’ve been making just isn’t enough. The ones who aren’t motivated don’t care anyway.”
According to Sloan and other Hollywood High teachers, the standardized tests are doubly damaging to the school’s efforts. “The results don’t reflect the achievements the newer immigrant kids have made in English and they also obscure what the native Americans and the more established immigrant kids have accomplished,” Sloan said.
New Definitions of Success
To compensate, some teachers find themselves readjusting their definitions of success. “What a lot of us do is set our goals by how reasonably we can expect our students to do,” said Ray Miller.
For Lorraine Trogman, a teacher of English as a second language, that has meant trumpeting the benefits of traditional college education to her immigrant students, but accepting the situation when they drop out to look for work.
“I tell myself we’re not losing the good ones,” she said. “When I lose a kid, it upsets me. But you cut your losses and build on your successes.”
To convince her immigrant students of the glories of college, Trogman has turned her classroom into a shrine to her alma mater, UCLA. Bruin calendars line the wall at the front of her classroom. When the UCLA basketball or football team plays, she never forgets to write the score on the blackboard the next morning. Some days, when she is seized by the spirit, Trogman shows up for class in blue and gold UCLA colors.
‘A Little Seed’
“Maybe I go a little far, but I think the students get the point,” she said. “I’m planting a little seed in their minds. For a lot of them, it’s the first time they ever think about college. Even if they don’t go, I think a lot of them will make sure that their children go.”
But for the majority of Hollywood High’s newly arrived immigrant students, college is still remote. Although few figures are available to show the long-term effects of American education on the most recent emigres at the school, one sampling by Steve Sloan suggests that for most immigrant students, simply finishing three years of high school is a major accomplishment.
After tracking the post-high school moves of 100 English-as-a-second-language students who started at Hollywood High in September, 1980, Sloan found that 20% eventually graduated from Hollywood High, while another 20% graduated from other Los Angeles high schools after transferring. More encouraging, Sloan found that nearly 65% of this year’s graduating class at Hollywood High had taken a course in English as second language at some point in their schooling, either at Hollywood High or earlier, in an elementary or junior high school.
“What those numbers begin to suggest is that maybe these kids are finding success, even if it’s not quite the success we’d like to see them achieve,” Sloan said.
In Carol Carvel’s remedial English classes, these modest successes reveal themselves in curious ways. By year’s end, students who early in the semester had taken each night’s homework assignment with either bored silence or muted grumbling suddenly had become eager to finish the work.
“At the beginning of the year, I told my ESL 3 (intermediate English as a second language) class that they would eventually beg me to give them homework,” Carvel recalled. “Of course, they laughed in my face.”
But recently, in the midst of one unruly session, Carvel sat down abruptly and refused to teach for the remainder of the class. When the bell rang, she remained at her desk, still silent, while a few students shuffled off. The rest sat, awaiting their homework assignment.
“It was classic guilt,” she said. “I wouldn’t give it to them. Finally, two girls--and these are pretty tough girls who hang out with gang members--came up and practically pleaded: ‘Please, Ms. Carvel, can’t we have homework?’ Here they were begging. I had the last laugh. That’s the kind of success we see.”
After a year, Carvel’s class has shown other signs. Carlos Echeverria, 16, a Salvadoran refugee, listened repeatedly one night to the lyrics of “I’m on Fire,” a Bruce Springsteen song. Thumbing through a dictionary for the meaning of words he didn’t understand, he painstakingly copied the lyrics down in his notebook. The next day, he triumphantly handed the completed copy to Yael Dumitru, a Romanian girl whom he wanted desperately to impress.
Even Dumitru, a radiant 16-year-old who arrived in the United States a month ago with a hesitant, rudimentary grasp of English, has found a modicum of success. As each male classmate approaches her with the faint hope that they might eventually date, both Yael and her frustrated suitors are forced to practice their English as they flirt and parry.
“When I first came, I was afraid to talk, that I would be making mistakes,” she said. “I feel more better now.”
So does Jaime Castellon, who could speak only a few phrases in conversational English when he started his 10th-grade classes at Hollywood High last September after arriving from Costa Rica, where his family sent him to avoid the military draft in Nicaragua.
After school, when he plays bruising basketball games with strangers in the Hollywood High gym, he is able to yell to his teammates in English and respond quickly to their bellowed replies. In class, he has improved at pronunciation, no longer turning the word again into agaim.
“I know the difference,” he said, rubbing his jaws to remind himself of the time a teacher pried his mouth open with a pen to keep his n’s from turning into m’s.
But in other ways, he reverts to form. Eager to follow Los Angeles Laker scores each morning, he pores over morning sports sections, but in the Spanish-language La Opinion. He watches the games on television as well, but tunes out the constant chatter of the English-speaking announcers.
Now, like so many of Hollywood High’s immigrant students, he has started to think about dropping out. Jaime, whose father graduated from college in the United States before returning to Nicaragua, and whose brother, Roberto, has been attending Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley, still wants to go to college.
But at 17, realizing he would not graduate from Hollywood High until he turned 19, Jaime is becoming impatient. He is trying to persuade his father, who still lives in Managua and runs a cosmetics store there, to join the rest of the Castellon family in Hollywood. Jaime hopes to persuade his father to allow him to drop out of high school and enroll in local community college where a high school diploma is not necessary.
“I have lost time,” Jaime said. “Some of the classes I am taking now are classes I already had in Costa Rica.”
While he waits to hear from his father, Jaime is preparing for his first summer vacation in Hollywood. Two weeks ago, he found a job working as a security guard in a clothing store on Western Avenue. Now he is looking for a second job to save for the college career he hopes he will start soon.
Roberto Castellon, Jaime’s older brother, thinks Jaime will end up graduating from Hollywood High. “I know he is impatient,” Roberto said. “But his father would want him to get a diploma.”
It can be done. The immigrant students who graduate from Hollywood High typically master the English-as-a-second-language course in 2 or 2 1/2 years, spending their final one or two semesters in the school’s regular classes.
“For many of these kids, just getting out of ESL is a major success,” said Sascha Firman, who has taught both Spanish and remedial English courses.
During most of her career as a teacher at Hollywood High, Firman, the granddaughter of Russian immigrants, has worked with emigre students. Like the rest of the school’s English-as-a-second-language staff, she dotes on her small successes.
At times, she wonders whether those victories continue for her students once they leave Hollywood High. Firman sometimes runs into former students outside the school grounds, at restaurants in Hollywood, in local shopping centers, even on the streets.
“I always look to see if they’re enjoying the prosperity of this country,” she said. “It thrills me when they look happy.”
Each June, she drives to the Hollywood Bowl for the school’s graduation ceremonies. Last year, as the robed students trooped across the stage to accept their diplomas and give their speeches, Firman closed her eyes and listened to the sound of their voices.
“The amazing thing was that their English was mostly indistinguishable from the native Americans who were up there,” she said. “I sat there and I thought: This is what my grandparents came here for. If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.” HOLLYWOOD HIGH CAP SCORES
The scores of the California Assessment Program are the mean percentage of correct answers.
Reading Writing Spelling Math 82-83 50.7 52.2 63.2 60.2 83-84 50.5 51.1 60.7 58.4 84-85 51.2 50.8 65.3 56.8