Times Staff Writer

You may not recognize the word Russian as it is written in Russian. California's handful of Russian-language teachers would like to change that and hope that glasnost will give their profession its biggest boost since Sputnik.

Teaching Russian may be the loneliest job in town. As few as five of the 200-plus high schools, public and private, in Los Angeles and Ventura counties offer programs in the language of Gogol and Gorbachev.

In Long Beach, West Los Angeles, Camarillo, Pasadena and Studio City, five Russian teachers instruct mere handfuls of students--exotics in a world where more and more people study Spanish.

There are 11 Russian teachers in all of California's public schools, a state Education Department spokesman said. In comparison, the state has 2,180 Spanish teachers and 64 Latin teachers. None of the Russian teachers teaches the language full time. Most teach German or another language as well. Locally, one also teaches algebra, another health.

Twenty years ago, far more American students knew that pravda is not just the name of the Soviet Union's leading newspaper; it is also the Russian word for truth. Once fairly common in the high school curriculum, the Russian language has fallen on hard times, apparently buffeted by everything from a boom in the study of Spanish to changing American attitudes toward the Soviet Union.

But even as they worry about extinction, local Russian teachers hope that glasnost-- the recent spirit of openness in and toward the Soviet Union--will give their profession its biggest boost since the 1957 launching of Sputnik.

Helen Skvor, who teaches Russian at the Center for International Commerce at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, said she has noticed a surge in opportunities for teachers and students of Russian--everything from cultural exhibits to exchange programs--since Reagan and Gorbachev began to attend each other's dinner parties.

"Even getting pen pals is easier," said Skvor, who has 25 students in both her beginning and advanced Russian classes.

The Center for International Commerce is a Long Beach Unified School District program that teaches high school students about world trade. The center offers instruction in Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Russian. Most of the students opt to study Japanese, Skvor said. Russian has about the same enrollment as Chinese.

Skvor's instructional materials include some of the Russian preschool books her toddler enjoys at home, such as the story of "The Naive Lion Cub" who discovers that mother knows best.

Asta Aristov, the sole teacher of Russian in the Los Angeles Unified School District, also believes that glasnost is a cause for optimism for her endangered profession. "Things are looking up again," she said.

Aristov, who teaches Russian, German and health at University High School in West Los Angeles, has seen interest in the language wax and, more notably, wane since she joined the faculty as a Russian and biology teacher in 1966.

Aristov had five sections of Russian at the high school in 1971-72. "That was the golden age," she said. Her advanced students were so fluent they could read Dostoevsky in the original, and the class occasionally did mathematics problems in Russian just for fun.

Today Aristov has one class of 17 students, almost all of them beginners. She finds time during every class to work with her three advanced students and keeps her two native speakers busy while she drills the beginners on the basics.

Along with improved science courses, Russian was added to the curriculum in many schools after the Soviets beat the United States into space by launching Sputnik, the first satellite. In 1965, at the peak of the rush to catch up, 27,000 students were studying Russian in American public high schools, according to the U. S. Department of Education.

Since then, enrollment has dipped to 6,000. In 1985 almost 30 times as many students took Latin as Russian. Spanish, which has displaced French as the most popular foreign language in American schools, had an enrollment of 2,334,000 in 1985.

According to Fred Dobb, consultant for foreign languages and international studies with the California Department of Education, only 766 of the more than 500,000 students taking foreign languages in California public schools in 1986-87 were studying Russian. Three-fourths of the students took Spanish. Russian trailed French, German, Latin, Japanese and Chinese in popularity, Dobb said.

"Facts and figures came out recently that there are more teachers of English in Russia than there are students of Russian in the United States," Dobb said.

But many observers say Russian is making a comeback. Johannes Van Straalen, director of the Russian Studies Center at Choate Rosemary Hall, a private school in Wallingford, Conn., reports that when private and parochial school students are added to the count, the number of pre-collegiate Russian students in this country has increased from 8,000 to 11,000 over the last three years.

"There's a renaissance of interest in Russian now," said Van Straalen, who attributes recent gains both to glasnost and to the stiffening of graduation requirements in many states. These include California, where students have been required since 1986-87 to take either a year of a foreign language or a visual or performing art.

College Courses on Rise

The number of college students studying Russian, while still disturbingly small to the nation's tiny community of Soviet and Slavic studies experts, is also on the rise. Between 1980 and 1986, enrollment grew from 23,987 to 33,961, a Modern Language Assn. official said. In 1968, Russian's banner year on American campuses, 40,696 students were enrolled.

Although no one is sure why, Russian is more popular on the East Coast than in the West.

In New York, where more than 650,000 public school students are taking foreign languages, about 1,800 are signed up for Russian. That is more than twice as many as in California. However, other languages are far more popular, including Italian, which attracted 35,187 students last year, a New York Department of Education official said.

For the last two years, Russian programs in New York schools have benefited from the presence of a consultant supplied by the Soviet Ministry of Education. According to New York education official Jane Barley, the Soviet educator's duties include visiting schools to promote the study of his native language. As Barley, who taught Russian for 20 years, said: "It's wonderful for a Russian teacher to be able to produce a real live Soviet in the classroom."

Spanish Is More Practical

Local teachers speculate that Spanish, in particular, is generally viewed as a more practical language than Russian, especially in increasingly Latino Southern California.

The teachers also point out that people's attitudes toward the study of Russian are often politicized. If local teachers are enjoying the warm breeze of glasnost, it is because they have seen how damaging the political chill has been in the past. When a Soviet plane shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983, a couple of Aristov's students dropped Russian at their parents' insistence. The parents' attitude, she recalled, was "I don't want my children to speak that language." David McCarley, who teaches Russian and German at Camarillo High School in Ventura County, has also encountered the view that Russian should not be studied because it is "the language of the Evil Empire."

"The kids have to defend themselves," said McCarley, who has 22 Russian students. McCarley's is a self-paced program in which students can study as little or as much as they wish. Students complete a series of lessons, moving on to the next only when they have done A or B work on the current assignment. "No one ever gets a bad grade," McCarley said. "He just works until he's proficient."

Depending on how much they master, students earn between one and seven credits for the course instead of the standard five.

Won't Hurt Grade Average

The unusual format of McCarley's course makes it more attractive to students who are concerned about preserving high grade-point averages so they can get into competitive colleges. Because Russian is perceived as a difficult language, in part because it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, some bright students avoid taking it.

"Many students will actually tell you, 'I'm going to take Spanish. It's an easy A, and I can concentrate on my math and chemistry,' " Aristov said.

McCarley has seen Russian come, go and come back at Camarillo. It was an option at the high school when McCarley joined the staff 16 years ago. It was dropped in 1982 for fiscal reasons, after the demise of Latin. Russian, unlike Latin, was resuscitated in the fall of 1986. "I pushed very hard for it," McCarley said. "In this world today, I would think Russian is a lot more vital than Latin, although I love Latin."

Elizabeth Kellison is a new teacher this year at the Harvard School, a private school for boys in Studio City that has offered Russian for years. Unlike most of her public school counterparts, Kellison teaches Russian full time. She has 44 students in five sections of Russian 1 through 4. Next year, she will add a fifth year of Russian for a few very advanced students.

Many Russian teachers find it hard to recruit students. Aristov said she sometimes visits junior high schools to assure prospective students that it is not as difficult as it initially looks. McCarley has had his students put on Russian-language skits for other students. "When we were just about to die out, we put on a skit and 35 kids signed up for Russian because it looked like fun," he recalled.

View of Many Languages

At the Harvard School, all new seventh-graders take a course called "Introduction to Language." Using Latin as the example, the course is designed to teach the students how to look at and learn many languages. In the last few weeks of the program, the students get a taste of French, Spanish and Russian.

Kellison says about a dozen youngsters sign up each year, roughly the same number as opt for Latin.

Russian is not an easy language, said Kellison, in part because its intonation and word order are so different from English. Because she experienced it herself, she can counsel her students on how Russian is acquired by a non-native speaker.

"You struggle your first year and you struggle even more your second year, and then you make a leap," she said. "I tell my second-year students, 'Gentlemen, I know second-year Russian is hard. It gets better.' "

Kellison is excited by the educational implications of glasnost, including the increased ease of travel in the Soviet Union. "It's a very exciting time to be studying Russian," she said. Kellison plans to go to the Soviet Union next year with Harvard School students. She would also like to see the area's far-flung students get together for Russian-language activities such as movies and banquets.

"You tend to feel isolated as a Russian student," she said. "Most other kids are studying French and Spanish."

Polytechnic School, a co-ed private school in Pasadena, began offering Russian language courses last year, teacher Kathleen Dillon said. (Earlier Dillon had taught "one little course" in Russian for seniors who had already completed the school's foreign language requirement.)

Dillon, who started as a French and Spanish teacher at Polytechnic, is finishing a doctorate in Russian literature at the University of Southern California.

"It was really a case of my learning a little Chinese or a little Russian," she recalled of her desire to branch out into non-Romance languages. "I decided on Russian because of the literature. Of course, there's no such thing as studying a little Russian. I became so enamored I couldn't stop."

Polytechnic is interested in building a full-fledged Soviet studies program, said Dillon, who also teaches courses in Russian literature and Soviet history. The school believes that such a program would contribute to the kind of international understanding that ensures peace, she said.

Dillon also believes that there will be numerous career opportunities for her students. History, she noted, seems to be repeating itself, and the United States is discovering once again, as it did in the shadow of Sputnik, that too few Americans know what the Soviets are talking about.

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