Touched by Melting Pot, Teachers at Capistrano Offer Warmth : School Away From Home

Times Staff Writer

Capistrano Avenue Elementary School in Canoga Park last week changed from a sheltered suburban school to a campus at the forefront of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s plan to find classrooms for students from crowded schools.

The transformation was caused by the arrival of 45 students from crowded Morningside Elementary School in San Fernando. The youngsters, including some who speak only Spanish, are the first students to enroll in Capistrano as part of a district program that buses children from crowded campuses to less-crowded schools. By June, district officials anticipate that 90 students will be bused there.

Capistrano, along with half of the 174 public schools in the San Fernando Valley, have become the home schools for students whose neighborhood schools are too crowded to accept them. The arrival of these youngsters has forced administrators, teachers and parents in predominantly white sections of the Valley to adjust their attitudes and programs to meet the needs of children who may be recent immigrants, or who speak little English.


“It’s hard for a community like ours that is so far away from the center of things to suddenly find itself a part of something that was so different from what we were used to,” said Lynn Tolbert, president of the Capistrano PTA.

Teachers Had Fears

“Sure, parents and teachers had fears, misunderstandings and apprehensions about being a receiver school for the kids,” she continued. “But Los Angeles is changing, and we’re going to have to change right along with it.”

The Valley’s role as a haven for youngsters from crowded schools has increased as district crowding has worsened. In 1985, 53 Valley schools acted as receivers for students from over-enrolled schools. This fall that number increased to 87 schools, and district officials predict that more Valley schools will be needed to handle the overflow.

“We are rapidly coming to the point where there is no classroom space left in the inner city,” said Sara Coughlin, an assistant Los Angeles school superintendent.

To get ready for the arrivals, Capistrano added its first bilingual teachers’ aides to its staff. Also for the first time, Capistrano organized the distribution of Spanish-speaking teachers and teachers’ aides so at least one class in each grade level can easily be transformed into a Spanish-speaking bilingual class.

The school started a free breakfast program, primarily for bused youngsters who come from families with income levels low enough to meet federal guidelines for free meals.

Extra district money that Capistrano received to help with the bused youngsters will be spent on Spanish textbooks, additional furniture and extracurricular activities to ease the students’ transition into their new school.

And before school started, Capistrano teachers participated in a series of district-sponsored workshops in which they learned techniques of teaching students who have limited ability in English.

“We try to tell teachers in schools like Capistrano that if they don’t have the resources or the experience working with limited English-proficient students, they shouldn’t worry,” said Charlotte McKinney, coordinator of instructional services for the district program that matches crowded schools with schools with extra room.

Training Program

“In our training program, we give them basic teaching techniques, provide them with specialized lesson plans, and tell them to do the best job they can. No one can ask any more of them,” McKinney said.

Like so many other Valley schools, Capistrano was built during an era when the Los Angeles school district was trying to cope with a fast-growing student population.

During the period after World War II, when the Valley changed from a collection of sleepy farming communities into a conglomeration of suburbs, the Los Angeles school district had to race to keep up with the growth.

“For almost four decades, most Los Angeles school facilities were built in the Valley. That’s where the growth was. That’s where the kids were,” said Jerry Scheslinger, a San Diego education planning consultant who has worked with the Los Angeles district.

“Many of those neighborhoods are now filled with an aging population, empty-nesters. These people do not put a great deal of demand on the schools,” Scheslinger continued. “And now the growth is in the downtown area and older parts of the city, where the district never had that many schools.”

Crowding became an issue in the eastern and central parts of the district in the early 1980s. The district attributes the rapid growth to an increase in the birth rate and an influx of immigrants.

No schools were built to meet the increased demand because part of a state court desegregation order the district then operated under stated that it could only build campuses in areas that would allow the school to open as an integrated school.

Because most of the school-age population was growing in Latino and Asian neighborhoods, some school board members said they were effectively stopped from building schools.

With no new campuses, the district introduced a series of stopgap measures. Schools began operating on a shortened day with students attending classes in shifts.

In the early 1980s, when state law mandated a longer school day, these double sessions were no longer feasible. The district then turned to operating schools on a 12-month schedule.

Year-Round Option

At these year-round schools, students were divided into several groups with at least one group on vacation at any time. By operating all year, instead of the traditional September through June, a school can increase its capacity because when one group of students is on vacation, another group can use the empty classrooms.

Even operating on a year-round schedule, the schools could not handle the growing enrollment. The district decided to put a limit on enrollment at the crowded schools and bus students to other campuses. The Valley offered many promising sites because enrollment at most campuses was at an all-time low.

Capistrano Elementary is one of the Valley schools where enrollment is low. In 1975, about 780 students attended Capistrano. Last year, there were 474.

Last spring, principal Petra Montante learned that Capistrano would be added to the list of receiver schools for students from crowded campuses. The community responded to the news with many questions, Montante recalled.

“For several weeks after I explained the situation to the PTA, the Advisory Council and other groups, parents would come in to my office and ask me questions about bilingual teaching methods and about the kinds of preparations we were making for the students’ arrival,” Montante said.

PTA President Tolbert said parents had many discussions among themselves about the busing program. “Most parents came to the conclusion that kids are kids. We have such a great faculty here, we knew that the quality of the program wouldn’t change,” she said.

As a way of welcoming parents of the bused students, the PTA decided to hold at least one of its meetings in the youngsters’ San Fernando neighborhood.

During the summer, four teachers and four bilingual aides were hired, and four portable classrooms were placed on the playground.

Almost all of the 20-member Capistrano faculty attended workshops to help teachers with little experience in teaching students with limited English. Some of the suggestions were simple--use more visual aids, speak slowly and distinctly, use more body language.

Cultural Heritage

To get students to talk, even though they may be worried that others children will laugh at how they speak English, teachers were encouraged to get the children to talk about their cultural heritage. Teachers were also told that introducing American culture--from singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to exercising to Jane Fonda’s workout videos--can stimulate English learning.

On the first day of school, about 45 San Fernando youngsters arrived at Capistrano. School officials said about half spoke no English. That did not matter.

The students were met by a bilingual teacher who guided them to the cafeteria for a quick breakfast and then took them to the library, where they were given classroom assignments.

Once in the classroom, the youngsters found the day’s activities written on the blackboard in English and Spanish. Veteran Capistrano teachers greeted the students with their newly learned Spanish. And the bilingual aides were ready to back up the teachers.

By the first recess, teachers said they could not see any differences between the students who rode the bus and those who walked to school.