THE MELTING POT : Schools Reeling From Influx of Armenians

Times Staff Writer

The sentence on the blackboard in the Horace Mann Elementary School first-grade classroom has an immediacy that "see Dick run" lacks.

"We will have Armenian books in the library soon," harried teacher Matilda Mardirussian has written--in Armenian and English--for her class of about 30 eager children newly arrived from Soviet Armenia. With an average of four Armenian emigres enrolling in the school each week, educators say they cannot order books fast enough.

Board members, administrators and teachers throughout Glendale Unified School District are bracing for the arrival of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Armenian emigres in the next year, the result of an easing of immigration policies in the Soviet Union. Since October, more than 2,000 Armenians have come into the country, and 10,000 more are expected by the end of the year, the U.S. State Department says. Eighty-five percent are headed for the Los Angeles area and for two communities in particular, authorities say--Hollywood and Glendale.

Exact Number Not Known

The exact number of Armenian children entering Glendale schools is unknown because educators keep data only on languages spoken by students, not on their countries of origin. But figures indicate that Armenian students make up about one-seventh of the 21,000 students enrolled in Glendale schools.

In the classrooms, the enrollment surge, which has yet to peak, is already much in evidence. At Roosevelt Junior High School, 20 Armenian students enrolled in one day in March. At John Marshall Elementary School, more than 40 children from Armenia have enrolled in the past five months. At Horace Mann, where Principal Wayne Sparks says Armenian enrollment used to increase steadily by about 10 students each year, 89 children from Armenia have enrolled since October.

Whole Families Show Up

At Mann, that has meant that nearly every Monday and Tuesday morning in recent months entire families crowd into the school office to enroll their children, speaking in a language that only one of the clerk-typists at the school understands.

"Whammo, we got them. They're pouring in," Sparks said. "When they come in, it's not just the mother and the child. It's the mother, the grandmother, the husband, the child and the baby. It's sort of wall-to-wall there in front of the counter."

At Glendale schools, where Asian, Latino and European immigrants often outnumber American-born students, coping with newcomers has become the norm. In the more densely populated southern area of the city particularly, rapid apartment construction has contributed to the general crowding of schools.

But this year's surge in Armenian enrollment, teachers and administrators say, is so dramatic that even the most experienced educators are feeling the strain.

"That day!" Roosevelt Junior High Principal Judith White said of the March morning when her office filled with Armenians. "We had standing around the office about 100 people and not a soul spoke English. The disconcerting part for the staff was not that we had an influx of students, but that we don't know when that will happen again."

Officials say that if estimates prove true, the Armenian immigration would be the largest influx of an ethnic refugee group to Los Angeles County since the resettlement of Vietnamese "boat people" in the late 1970s.

The Armenians began leaving the Soviet Union last year, when as an apparent byproduct of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's glasnost , or new policy of openness, Soviet officials quietly began approving exit visas.

Thousands of Armenians had been seeking to leave their Soviet-dominated homeland for years for economic, political and family reasons. Many of the refugees are joining relatives in America, particularly in Glendale and Hollywood, which have the largest concentration of Armenians outside Soviet Armenia.

On the Front Lines

Officials do not know whether the relaxation of immigration restrictions in the Soviet Union will continue, nor do they know how many emigres will eventually settle in Glendale. But for now, Glendale schools are on the front lines in dealing with the immigrants, who often enroll their children even before they check into the local Department of Public Social Services for monetary assistance they can receive under the state- and federally-funded Refugee Assistance Program.

"Sometimes I just don't have time to sit down and think," teacher Mardirussian said. "Not only do I have to be teaching Armenian and English at the same time, but I have to be a counselor, a friend to parents, a part of their family. They trust everything to me--their problems, their . . . checks, their children."

Lacking enough teachers like Mardirussian, officials are straining to hire more Armenian-speaking teachers and teacher's aides, to buy Armenian books and to secure state funding.

At the district's Office of Intercultural Education, director Alice Petrossian is coordinating state and federal grants for teachers and books and working with Armenian refugee and community groups. The staff in her office is working overtime translating school rules, parent newsletters and educational materials into Armenian.

The district hired two Armenian-speaking teachers and three aides in 1987 to add to an existing staff of eight Armenian-speaking teachers. Administrators are planning to hire more of the bilingual classroom instructors.

In January, the district received an $8,000 grant from the Glendale-based Armenian Educational Foundation to buy Armenian books for school libraries. And last month, district officials applied to the U.S. Department of Education for funding to teach English to the Armenian families under a federal program called the Family English Literacy Project.

Teaching Training Program

Recently, district administrators began working with officials at Cal State Los Angeles on a program they hope will eventually increase the number of Armenian-speaking teachers in Glendale schools. The university's Bilingual Training Center is offering scholarships to Armenians who speak English fluently. Glendale school officials are helping to recruit recent graduates for the program.

When more bilingual teachers join Glendale schools, they may help relieve some of the confusion and anxiety immigrant children feel in their first weeks at school as they adjust to a strange, new country.

After enrolling, children are tested for English language proficiency. Educators say that children from Soviet Armenia, in contrast to earlier Armenian immigrants from the more privileged classes in Iran and other Arab countries, generally speak no English, though they may be fluent in Armenian and Russian.

In a student's first six weeks at school, special English language survival classes provide basic skills. ("You know, how to say 'I have to go to the bathroom,' that kind of thing," Sparks said). At Mann, those classes had to be shortened from two hours to one hour long because enrollment was so high.

Immigrant children also take English as a Second Language, known as ESL courses, for two hours each day, usually for one to two years. But they spend the rest of the school day in a class where, most often, only a teacher's aide and a few other students, if that, speak Armenian.

Typically, older elementary schoolchildren move out of ESL classes and into the regular curriculum much faster than younger ones, teachers and administrators say. Educators attribute that gap to the greater portion of time a younger child spends at home surrounded by the foreign language-speaking family.

In Mardirussian's ESL class at Mann, educational materials and time are scarce. Mardirussian, an energetic woman, has come up with some creative solutions to the schools' lack of books.

A first-grader from Soviet Armenia came in on one recent day with her prized possession in hand--a copy of "Pilos," a popular Armenian children's storybook published in Iran. Mardirussian borrowed the book and photocopied and laminated each page. Then she bound the pages into a homemade book of sorts--so the other children would be able to read the story.

History of Success

Educators at Glendale schools say they are fortunate that most of the Soviet Armenian refugees entering the district are of elementary school age. Armenian children who come to the United States at a young age have a history of success in school, those educators say. A strong family emphasis on education and the ability of young children to adapt quickly are in their favor.

John Marshall Elementary School Principal Nancy Jude gives out certificates every month to schoolchildren who have turned in all their homework assignments. She said she hands out those certificates to nearly all her Armenian students.

"The parents are very involved in the kids' schoolwork. They value education," she said. "Whatever extras there are they want for their kids. They want them to take the bicycle safety course. They want them to take out books. They insist that they do their homework."

Hollywood schools, which serve the area where the bulk of Soviet Armenian refugees are settling, are experiencing an enrollment increase in all grades. In those schools, many junior high school and high school-age Armenian children are falling victim to the frustrations of learning a new language and starting over, instructional adviser Anahid Terjimanian said. Many of those older students drop out of school or do not go on to college.

If the pattern established by the Mideastern Armenian emigres continues, some of the refugees for whom Hollywood is the port of entry will move to more affluent, nearby Glendale as they become more financially secure.

At the moment, Glendale high schools are seeing only a trickle of the refugee children. Caseworkers at the Glendale Department of Social Services say the families settling in Glendale are younger than the average, but they do not know why.

Glendale's latest wave of Armenian immigrants is but one facet of a multi-ethnic, multicolored cultural melange centered in the southern end of a city whose demographics have changed dramatically since the 1970s.

"Whenever something happens in the world it seems these days eventually we feel it in Glendale," district Supt. Bob Sanchis said. "We've been involved in receiving youngsters from all over the world for a number of years."

Ten years ago, slightly more than 900 limited-English speaking students were enrolled in district schools. Today the total is more than seven times that, district officials said.

"The district up to this point has been able to service most all the immigrants who have come in," district spokesman Vic Palos said. "It's really remarkable. But we're getting to the point now where it's really a crisis of numbers. How many more kids can you accommodate at some of these schools?"

The diversification of Glendale's schools could not have happened without a housing boom that accompanied the easing of interest rates in the early 1980s. The development surge has changed the character of the once quiet, suburban city. Streets formerly of single-family homes are lined with apartment buildings filled with immigrant families fleeing places from Southeast Asia to Central America.

City housing officials say 1,400 more apartment units are in various stages of preparation, mostly in the southern section of the city where schools are already severely overcrowded.

In the meantime, at Mann, where 17 portable classrooms sit on what was once playground space, one class is being held in the principal's office. Crowding, constant change and a kaleidoscopic variety of languages increasingly make teaching at Glendale schools a challenge for classroom instructors.

"I just can't reach the kids," said first-grade teacher Jeff Jones, who is fluent in Spanish but whose class includes several Koreans and six Armenian children.

"When you get a large percentage of your class not speaking English, you can't communicate at all," Jones said, standing in the doorway of his classroom. "You know that they need something, but there's very little you can do about it. It's a matter of how much I can read into a gesture or a face."

Jones said he often seats an Armenian immigrant next to another Armenian child who is fluent in English and can translate. "Let's face it," he said. "Logistically that can't happen that often."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World