Ethnic Diversity Puts School Districts to Test

Times Education Writer

Two students, two worlds.

The boy, 15, had attended one of the best Hong Kong prep schools. He had already studied physics and chemistry, and he knew a moderate amount of English--enough to ask directions to the library and how to enroll in a computer class. Modishly dressed and carrying a sleek backpack well stocked with paper and pencils, he seemed to blend right into the crowd at Alhambra High School, where he enrolled last spring.

The girl, also 15, had fled from Vietnam with her family in 1978 and spent the next eight years in a refugee camp in the Philippines. Aside from a few rudimentary English lessons in the camp, she had little formal education, and she spoke primarily Cantonese. Carrying pens and notebooks, doing homework and heeding tardy bells were basic rules of the classroom that she knew nothing about.

Both students entered Alhambra High School as freshmen on the same day last spring. At the end of the term last June, the boy’s report card showed A’s and B’s, while the girl failed most of her courses. Although the gap between them--and the differing demands each would place on the school system--may seem an unusual circumstance, at Alhambra such diversity is a fact of life that is reinforced nearly every day.

Profound Changes

Asian immigrant students, representing a striking range of languages, cultures and socioeconomic levels, are streaming into schools in the San Gabriel Valley, forcing districts that were largely Anglo or Latino to grapple with profound ethnic changes that seemed to develop overnight.

School officials say the newcomers--chiefly from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Korea and China--are changing the texture of school life. At many high schools in the area, for instance, tennis and swimming are more popular than sports requiring great physical heft, such as football. And on elementary school playgrounds, the game of choice frequently is Chinese jump rope, more complicated than the standard American version.


But the immigrant students are posing special challenges, too.

Bilingual Classes

The influx of students who need to learn English has sent school administrators scrambling to find scarce Asian bilingual materials, teachers and aides. It also has produced some extraordinary classrooms, such as the fourth-grade class in Rosemead last year in which the 32 students spoke five different languages--and the teacher spoke only English.

Moreover, it is forcing many teachers and administrators to re-examine their own prejudices. “We’re not sure we want to accept what has happened,” said a white principal in Rosemead, who preferred anonymity. “We need to look at how we look at people who are different from us and different from Hispanics. Do we look at (the rising Asian enrollment) as a change or as a problem?”

Outside the classroom, the enrollment swing is causing ripples of unease, particularly in the upper grades. Asian students have tangled in fights with Latinos and Anglos, and racial epithets have been used even by grade-school youngsters.

Language differences often set off the conflict. “I don’t care that they’re here,” said an Anglo student at Alhambra High School, where students of Asian descent account for 48% of the 3,500-student enrollment. “I just wish they’d speak English. They can be looking straight at you, saying a bunch of junk, and you know they’re talking about you. That’s how a big fight started here. I think they could speak English if they wanted to,” he added, “but I don’t think they want to.”

For the newcomer, however, learning English is the goal--and an awesome one at that. An Alhambra High senior, who spoke on the condition that she remain anonymous, said that she has learned a fair amount of English in the four years since she left Taiwan. But she says she often feels too embarrassed to speak it. “In order to learn it, you have to speak it,” she said. “But when I talk to American people, I get nervous. I make mistakes, and they laugh at me. Even with my Chinese friends who were born here, I am afraid to talk. That’s why a lot of Chinese stay in their groups and speak Chinese together. They never learn English.”

New Expectations

The parents of the immigrant students also are struggling to meet new expectations. Language is a barrier, but so is culture. They are being asked to attend teacher conferences, join the PTA and take an active role in monitoring school board decisions--duties that they were not expected to undertake in their native countries.

“When you ask an Asian parent to come to a meeting after school and ask how they think their child’s education could be improved, they think, ‘Why are you asking me? You’re supposed to know,’ ” said Elena Wong, an assistant superintendent in the Garvey school district, which serves parts of Monterey Park and Rosemead. “That kind of participation is not part of Asian culture. So we are asking our parents to change completely.”

The rapid climb in Asian school enrollment has been nothing short of phenomenal in this diverse region of bedroom communities, which ranges from blue-collar Rosemead to middle-class Alhambra to upper-crust San Marino.

According to a Times survey, in 1980, 7% or 16,500 out of 223,000 students in 25 San Gabriel Valley school districts were of Asian descent. By October, 1986, the number had more than doubled to 16%, or 39,000 out of 241,000 students. By comparison, in the 590,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, Asian enrollment has remained fairly stable at about 8% over the last four years.

Fastest-Growing Group

This rush of Asians to the classroom may make the San Gabriel Valley somewhat of an anomaly. But other school communities may find themselves looking to Alhambra and its neighbors for guidance in the not-too-distant future.

According to a study by Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent educational research group based at UC Berkeley, Asians constitute the fastest-growing segment in public school enrollment statewide. The percentage of Asian and Pacific Islander students statewide rose from 2.2% in 1971 to 7.1% in 1985, more than a threefold increase. In comparison, Latino students form the largest minority but their enrollment is growing more slowly, from 16% to 28.7% over the same time period.

Alhambra is the largest school district in the San Gabriel Valley, serving Alhambra and parts of Monterey Park and San Gabriel. It provides a striking example of a district coping with dramatic ethnic shifts.

In 1970, 62% of Alhambra’s 18,000 students were Anglo, 29% were Latino and 9% were Asian. Today, according to fall semester figures, Asians are predominant, accounting for 48% of the district’s 20,000 students. Latino students represent 36.5%, while Anglos make up 15%. Alhambra has the highest percentage of Asian students of any district in the state, according to enrollment figures gathered by the State Department of Education.

Highest Percentage

A Times survey of school districts around the country found that the Alhambra district had the highest percentage of Asian students anywhere.

Three-quarters of the district’s Asian pupils are foreign-born, with the largest group--43%--from Vietnam. Eleven different Asian languages and dialects are spoken, including Vietnamese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Cambodian, Laotian, Tagalog, Thai, Japanese, Tongan and Chiu-chow, a provincial Chinese dialect common among Chinese from Vietnam.

On many Alhambra campuses, as many as half the Asian students are not fluent in English.

Although Asians have represented a substantial portion of the enrollment for several years, the first Asian assistant principals were appointed only last year--one at Repetto and one at Monterey Highlands elementary schools. There are no Asian associate or assistant superintendents. The proportion of Asians in the teaching force is markedly higher, however--20% at the elementary level and 7% in the high schools.

The district hired 14 Spanish bilingual teachers in 1977. At that time, Spanish was the second most common language spoken by district students after English. Japanese was third, and Chinese was fourth.

Caught Off Guard

Soon thereafter, however, the district’s ethnic ratios began to change. The shift caught the district off guard.

“In a matter of less than two years,” said Alhambra school board member Dora Padilla, “the district did a tremendous flip-flop. Spanish was still the major other language, but Chinese was gaining fast.” In 1978, the district hired a bilingual specialist to work with Chinese-speaking elementary school students. Between 1979 and 1980, Asian enrollment rose from 25% to 32% in the elementary grades.

Today, the district employs 40 bilingual Chinese and 19 bilingual Vietnamese teachers, said bilingual education coordinator Suanna Ponce-Gilman, but more are needed. Alhambra officials say they would like to hire as many teachers proficient in Asian languages as are available, but such instructors are so hard to find that the district recently went as far as Vancouver, Canada, to recruit Cantonese-speaking teachers.

Several Languages

The same need exists next door in the Garvey School District, where 35%, or 2,600 out of 7,500 students, are Asian. Only 2% of school districts in the state have a greater proportion of youngsters who need to learn English. Of the 3,000 students who speak little or no English, 43% speak 14 Asian languages, including Vietnamese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Cambodian and an array of provincial dialects.

Garvey has 21 Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking instructors, six bilingual Vietnamese instructors, but no teachers proficient in Cambodian.

“We are way behind what we need,” said Lily Chang, the district’s Asian bilingual consultant. “I place ads in ethnic papers. I recruit at job fairs and conferences at universities. But everyone is looking for (Asian bilingual teachers). It seems like we are stealing from each other. There are just not enough to go around.”

State law says that a district must provide a bilingual classroom whenever there are 10 or more students of one language group in a grade level.

Not Enough Students

But often a district may not have enough students of one group to form a class, or no qualified teacher who speaks the language. Thus, Chang said, it is common in Garvey to have a mixture of languages within one class. Some students may speak Cantonese, some Mandarin and still others the Chiu-chow dialect, for instance.

In fourth-grade teacher Pat Fier’s classroom at Emerson School in Rosemead last year, for example, there were 32 students who were native speakers of Cantonese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Thai or Tagalog, the chief language of the Philippines. Most of them knew some English, except for the Thai and the Filipino students, who knew none. Fier spoke English and a little Spanish and was taking courses to learn Vietnamese. A Vietnamese-speaking aide translated when Fier needed help explaining difficult concepts.

Although such diversity would seem to overwhelm the most capable teacher, Fier had an upbeat attitude. “The work is challenging but very interesting,” she said. “I couldn’t do it without my aide. You can do a lot of things as a group (using only English). But certain things you need the aide for, maybe to explain a math concept or the parts of speech.”

Spanish-Speaking Aide

Often, there are not enough aides of the right language group. John McCrea, a government teacher and chairman of the Social Science Department at Alhambra High School, said last year he was assigned an aide who spoke Spanish, but his class was predominantly Asian.

Finding appropriate textbooks and other materials in Asian languages is also a serious problem, school officials say. Alhambra recently sent a group of administrators to Taiwan to purchase Chinese-language books. But, according to Ponce-Gilman, the district’s bilingual coordinator, most of the foreign materials they found either followed a different sequence than American curriculum plans or were too advanced. Thus, the district has no complete series of Asian-language textbooks, but mostly dictionaries, some works of literature and supplemental materials.

Because of the scarcity of bilingual instructors and books, school officials say they have had to make the best of limited resources. In the Rowland Unified School District, which serves Rowland Heights and part of La Puente, Asian students account for about 19% of the district’s 18,788-student enrollment. The district has offered teachers daylong workshops on teaching strategies and revising the curriculum to meet the needs of limited-English-speaking students, bilingual education coordinator Debbie Stark said. This year, the emphasis is on helping teachers understand the different Asian cultures.

Must Undergo Training

In Alhambra, all teachers hired in the last two years must undergo 35 hours of training in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) techniques. In addition, any new teacher must, as a condition of employment, agree to accept a bilingual teaching assignment if needed, Ponce-Gilman said.

In contrast to bilingual education, which uses the child’s native language to give instruction in such basic courses as math and reading, ESL relies on techniques that allow a teacher to teach in English. Such teachers learn to gear their speech to the students’ level of proficiency and employ visual props and pantomime to aid comprehension.

Alhambra also established an innovative program last fall to meet some of the most pressing needs of immigrant youngsters. The Elementary Assessment and Orientation Center was created to ease the burden on teachers and other school employees of helping immigrant students adjust to the school system, said director Edmund W. Lee.

The eight-member staff assesses the language proficiency of all new grade-school students and provides those who test at the lowest level with nine weeks of intensive English lessons. It also provides physical examinations and a general orientation to American culture. A similar program is operating at the high school level.

Reliance on ESL

Because of the shortage of bilingual teachers, districts in the San Gabriel Valley have relied heavily on the ESL approach. Most schools offer three levels of ESL academic courses. A limited-English student generally takes about three years to attain a level of proficiency that will allow him to join a regular classroom. Many teachers have balked at teaching students not fluent in English, despite the pressing need for more ESL instructors.

Sue Bohnert, a veteran English teacher at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, said teaching limited-English students is more work because they are shy about speaking up in class and need extra help to write clearly and understand concepts.

But she says she relishes the challenge. She has become a “contortionist” in her ESL classes, pulling out dictionaries, drawing pictures on the board and turning to body language and humor to help her students understand a difficult word or phrase.

At Alhambra High School, where the number of ESL students has risen from 80 to 800 since 1980, department chairman McCrea said that it has been tough trying to persuade teachers to take ESL assignments. Much resistance has come from teachers who are afraid that such classes are academically undemanding. To an extent, McCrea said, they are right.

Lack of Depth Cited

A 23-year veteran of Alhambra High, McCrea pulled out a textbook used in 12th-grade ESL government classes. “This is a 12th-grade government book that is written on the seventh-grade reading level. The chapters are very short, the sentences are short. There is no depth,” he said.

Some topics were covered in a superficial manner or were completely omitted. For example, he pointed out, the text used in advanced classes contained an entire chapter on the federal bureaucracy, but the ESL book did not even mention it.

Other teachers report that they have reduced the amount of reading required in some courses and spend more time correcting writing, changes they say may be related to the rise in enrollment of Asian students who are not proficient in English. Andrea Thais, an English teacher at Alhambra, says she cannot definitely attribute these differences to the new population of students, but she notes that she “can’t move as fast as I used to” through materials she has used for years. The slower pace forced her to cut one novel--Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice"--from the reading list in her world literature class

Reading Called Laborious

Recent Asian immigrants say that they find reading a painfully laborious process. “If I want to understand what I’m reading,” said one Alhambra High School student, “I have to look in the dictionary all day.” Some teachers say they have seen entire chapters of textbooks with Chinese translations penciled in.

Although the image of the Asian super-student is prevalent on most campuses in the San Gabriel Valley, school officials say that test scores have shown certain overall weaknesses among Asian students that they attribute to the high number of limited-English speakers.

At Wilson High in Hacienda Heights, where Asian enrollment has increased to 30% from 15% in the last three years, head counselor Kenneth A. Olson conducted a survey that showed Asian students scoring well above the national average on the mathematics portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) but below the state and national averages on the verbal section.

“It is quite easy for an Asian student with limited English to learn vocabulary words,” he said. “But to learn concepts, that’s where they have a terrible time.” To help increase their scores, Wilson has purchased computers for a special tutoring program aimed at improving the immigrant student’s language skills.

Salutary Effect

Overall, however, Olson believes that the Asian newcomers have had a salutary effect academically.

“The academic power or strength of the school has been brought up,” he said. “Students complain it’s very difficult to get a good grade.” Asian students clamor for admission to honors courses, which caused the school to find ways to add more classes. Moreover, the school has tried to limit honors enrollment by setting higher requirements for most advanced courses. To make it more difficult to reach the top, Wilson also added an extra point to the grade scale, making 5.0 the highest grade average possible.

Peers Awed

The ferocity with which many Asian students approach school work has left some of their American-born peers in awe.

Tony Guerrero, director of an orientation center for immigrant students in the Hacienda Heights-La Puente School District, told of a recent conversation with a Wilson student.

“This student told me that he got the highest grade in the class. So I said what did you get? He said, ‘I got a B.’ I said B was the highest grade? And he replied, ‘Oh, the Asian kids got A’s, but we don’t count them.’ It’s like they’re not real.”

But their accomplishments are quite real.

Alhambra High School students have dominated nearly every major science contest in Los Angeles County for the past several years; in one biology competition for Southern California high schools two years ago, the school walked away with the top three prizes--all won by Asian students.

The school offers more advanced science and math courses than the other two district high schools, including two levels of advanced physics. The courses have Asian enrollments out of proportion to the percentage of Asians in the student body.

Motivation Cited

“It’s their motivation,” science department Chairman John Hartnett said of Asian students’ apparent prowess in math and science. “By the time they come to high school, they already have had algebra and geometry. They take all the science and math courses available.”

Many teachers, however, regard their Asian students’ academic fervor as a double-edged sword. They note a tendency to be acutely grade-conscious, a trait that some teachers find annoying.

“These kids come to us with certain expectations,” said Stark, the bilingual coordinator for the Rowland Unified School District, where a majority of Asian students are natives of Korea. “The way it was in Korea, they had real high expectations with grades. So that creates a whole new set of expectations for our teachers.

“Sometimes what happens is those kids come in wanting the A at any cost, questioning an A-minus. Their parents are very eager for their children to have A’s. So teachers have to learn how to deal with that kind of student and that kind of student’s parent.”

Higher Scores Overall

In the Alhambra School District, objective measures of academic achievement indicate that Asian students as a whole score higher than Anglos or other ethnic groups. A breakdown of last year’s eigth-grade scores on the California Assessment Program test shows that Asians outperformed Anglos, blacks and Latinos in reading, writing, math and social studies.

“One can easily say that Asian immigration hasn’t hurt our scores and, in many instances, has raised scores,” said Diane Saurenman, who oversees testing and evaluation.

Saurenman, however, cautioned against over-generalizing about the academic prowess of Asians. Some Asian subgroups do not perform as well as others because of socioeconomic differences, she said.

Differences Noted

“There are extreme differences in the Asian population. The refugee camp kids are not like the kids coming out of established families” of American-born parents or the children of well-to-do immigrants, she said.

A 1984 study by Stephen H. Kan and William T. Liu of the Pacific/Asian American Mental Health Research Center at the University of Illinois found that Vietnamese children have the highest poverty rate of all ethnic groups. Forty-three percent of Vietnamese school-age children live below the poverty level, compared to 36% of blacks, 31% of Latinos, 15% of Chinese, 12% of Koreans and 10% of Anglos, the study said.

Edmund Lee, the director of the Alhambra immigrant assessment center, recently conducted his own study of 544 ethnic Chinese immigrant students and found that those from low-income families scored consistently lower than those from middle- and upper-class backgrounds on the state Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.

Furthermore, he found that the majority of the students in the low-achieving group were ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. Lee attributed their poorer performance to the disruptions and hardships associated with war and being refugees.

Cautions Teachers

Based on his findings, Lee said that teachers should not assume that all students of Chinese ancestry will be academic whizzes. “I would caution teachers about generalizing . . . that they are all successful or all diligent in math. And they should take notice of where the kids come from. Are they from Hong Kong, Vietnam or Taiwan? Chinese kids from Vietnam are at greater risk than (Chinese) kids from the other parts of the world, for whatever reason.”

Sometimes, however, even culturally aware teachers run into barriers.

Sue Bohnert, the Mark Keppel English teacher, recalled a Cambodian girl she had in class last year. The student could not speak English, so Bohnert scrounged up a Khmer-English dictionary, thinking it would help. It didn’t.

“She gave it back because she was illiterate in Cambodian,” Bohnert said, sighing. “She was one of my biggest failures. She dropped out.”

Major Concern

An advisory council on Asian and Pacific Islander affairs appointed by state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig identified dropouts as a major concern in a report released last March. It cited an attrition rate of 20% among Filipinos and 15% among all other Asians, but suggested that the figures may actually be higher.

School officials may overlook many problems, the council said, in part because of a misconception that all Asians are model students who do not need special assistance.

A significant minority of immigrant youths do not find it easy to blend into their new school and culture. Many become rebellious, adopting extreme hair styles and punk attire, using street language before they really understand what it means, or running away from home.

Problems at Home

Once a month, a panel of Alhambra administrators and counselors meets youngsters who have problems staying in school, including many who do not fit the “model Asian” mold. The School Attendance Review Board assesses cases involving truancy and other disruptive behavior. Of the 293 students who came before the board last year, 29 were Asian, almost all of them recent immigrants who were having problems at home.

“Every Asian kid who comes before me is a generation problem,” said board member Marci Randle. “The problems I deal with here are generation gap.”

A case that came up at the last meeting of the 1985-86 school year was typical. A 16-year-old Mark Keppel High School student, whose family emigrated from Taiwan four years ago, was a chronic runaway. Her parents spoke little English and worked long hours at a small dress business they operated in Los Angeles.

‘Different’ Person

The girl did not show up at the meeting because she had run away again. Her mother, who was required to attend the session, told the board that her daughter had not been a problem back in Taiwan. But, in the last two years, she said, the daughter had become a different person.

“She won’t listen at all. It is very hard to talk to her,” the mother said through an interpreter. “She says bad words to us and is not respectful at all. She dresses sloppy, and she is very lazy.” Breaking into sobs, she added, “I only want my daughter to study and behave.”

The girl eventually came home and is back in school, Randle said recently, but continues to miss classes frequently.

Knows of 10 Runaways

Julie Hadden, formerly dean at Keppel and now an administrator at San Gabriel High School, said the problem of runaways and dropouts among Asian immigrant students is “very frightening. I can think of 10 runaways (at Keppel) last year. Their parents are really struggling. They don’t know how to handle the kids.”

Asian immigrant parents need to be “re-educated” about American culture and the pressures on American youths, said Gladys Lee, director of the Asian Pacific Family Center in Rosemead, which has provided counseling services to many recent immigrants.

“They’re going through hard times. They come here for their kids, and their kids become someone they don’t know. Sometimes they dye their hair orange, have a real new wave look--they’re trying to acculturate, but they’re going too fast. The parents don’t understand.”

Parents Educated Too

One organization, the Alhambra-based Chinese-American PTA, is trying to help immigrant parents understand how the American school system operates and encourages their participation in school events. Other efforts by schools have targeted teachers for special sessions about the differences between various Asian cultures.

Many schools have focused on improving relations between Asians and other students. For instance, students at San Marino High School last year produced a series of skits that sparked dialogue among students by spoofing certain stereotypes, such as the “rich Asian” who drives a BMW to school or the “dumb jock” who is white.

Officials at Mark Keppel High School assembled a discussion group of “natural leaders” representing major ethnic and social groups on campus who, through a series of frank discussions led by an outside counselor, began to break down certain preconceived notions.

Some of the group’s members were American-born Latinos. Some were born in Mexico. A few were Vietnamese immigrants. Others were Cambodian, Filipino, Chinese or American-born Japanese.

Although the group met only half a dozen times, several of the participants said it served its purpose well.

Brought Students Together

“This group brought a lot of us together,” said Martha Puente, 16. “If I learned anything, it is to accept people for what they are, not what they eat or what they drive. If you do that, you find out you have a lot more friends than you thought you did.”

Other schools have sponsored groups just for recent immigrants, giving them a comfortable environment in which to air their concerns about making friends, learning English or coping with loneliness.

After his first day recently at Alhambra High School, Hong Kong-born Alexander Hui, 16, was apprehensive about fitting into his new environment. But he knew he wanted to stay. “America is better. It has more freedom,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It just seems better.”

COUNTING ASIAN POPULATION For nine months, in an effort to detail the extensive demographic and social changes taking place in the San Gabriel Valley, The Times interviewed hundreds of government officials, longtime residents and newly arrived Asians.

Because so many Asian newcomers have arrived within the past five years, the 1980 Census proved to be an inadequate measure of their current representation within the population. Many of the population estimates used in this story were reached by a method of extrapolation suggested by demographers at the Rand Corp. and the state Department of Finance.

The estimates counted Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Cambodians and Filipinos as Asians. Chinese newcomers accounted for the bulk of the growth.

The Times compared the 1980 students ethnic breakdowns with 1980 census figures for the same ethnic groups. The figures showed, for example, that for every Asian student attending San Gabriel Valley schools in 1980, there were roughly five Asians in the general population. Taking student population figures for 1986, The Times was able through mathematical extrapolation to determine rough estimates of the percentage of Asians, Anglos and Latinos in the general population today. A comparison of birth and death certificates yields roughly comparable percentages, supporting the population estimates derived by this method.