Out of the Mouths of Babes : Languages Abound in San Diego’s Doyle Elementary School

Times Staff Writer

A typical morning at Doyle Elementary School finds instructional aide Nobu Baum talking and writing in Japanese both about that language’s ideograms and about English consonant combinations for a group of Japanese first- and second-graders.

Across the hall, a second aide, Bat-Sheva Zimran, discusses math and grammar problems in Hebrew with a couple of second-grade Israeli students.

In Victoria Ingalls’ regular kindergarten class, students from Japan, China, Korea, Denmark and Germany--to name just a few countries--read books and piece together puzzles with their American peers under watchful eyes of parent volunteers from Denmark, Japan and from the school’s Golden Triangle neighborhood.


And at recess, there is the potential babble of at least 21 different languages on the playgrounds.

Unique Among Schools

The international world of Doyle Elementary, tucked away among large apartment and condominium complexes just east of UC San Diego, is unique among schools in San Diego County and equaled only at a few similar campuses across the country.

By virtue of its location, Doyle draws most of its population from among the large numbers of university graduate students and scholars at UCSD, Scripps Clinic, the La Jolla Veterans Hospital and adjacent research institutions who live in the attractive, nearby off-campus residential developments.

Among those scholars are about 2,000 foreign residents, an increasing number with young children who qualify for public school education, the same as the offspring of American university scholars and company employees living in the same La Jolla Colony and University Towne Centre neighborhoods.

The result is a school of children of highly educated and highly motivated parents, but where up to one-third of the 600 students may be from foreign lands and who come with little or no English preparation.

“The unique richness of cultures and languages you find here is really extraordinary,” Doyle Principal Jerry Jordan said.

Said kindergarten teacher Ingalls, one of four English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teachers: “On the average, the foreign kids are here from six months to two years, but they pick up a tremendous amount of English in a very, very short time.

“Traditionally, most teaching material for limited English-speaking children is aimed at an immigrant population, those children who may not have had much education in their native land, and who may not have had educated parents.

“Here we’ve got mainly a college- or medicine-related foreign population, where at least one parent is highly educated and quite proficient in reading or writing English, and who came from outstanding educational facilities in their own countries.”

The largest number of foreign students are from Japan and Israel. The school has a growing number of Spanish-speaking students, some the offspring of foreign scholars and others the sons and daughters of workers in the Golden Triangle commercial and hotel complexes. In addition, a number of upwardly mobile Vietnamese and Laotian immigrant families have moved into area apartments during the last two years, adding to the cultural mix.

Typical Lessons

There are smaller numbers of students from Sweden, Korea, Portugal, Brazil, Finland, Iran, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Hungary, with the breadth of international representation varying somewhat from year to year.

All students are placed in regular classrooms at their grade level, and those who have limited English ability--the vast majority--also receive intensive ESL instruction, which emphasizes speaking and listening comprehension. In a typical lesson the other day, ESL aide Latanya Martin led five kindergarten students--from Brazil, Vietnam, Japan, Iran and Israel--through a conversation lesson using “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Further, the school offers native-language teaching in Japanese and Hebrew for up to an hour each day because of the large number of Japanese and Israeli students, instruction that administrators admit is highly unusual but nevertheless valuable and justified under the district’s second-language curriculum. All of the district’s native-language programs at other schools are in Spanish or one of several Indochinese languages.

Language specialists say that primary-language instruction--at the same time that the students are receiving English the rest of the day--helps to make the transition to English comprehension easier. That’s because the students become literate in their first language and therefore make a more natural switch to English, administrators say. They add that it also allows students to learn new concepts in math and social studies areas without having to sit through all-English instruction that they would not understand initially.

“If you learn to read in your own language, the transition to a second is much easier,” said Alex Belliaeff, a second-language resource teacher who helps with the Doyle curriculum. But Belliaeff is sometimes asked why such special assistance is offered to students who probably will be in the United States for an average of two years, as opposed to primary-language instruction for students who have immigrated permanently.

“By law, we cannot ask parents whether the children are going back to Israel or Japan, or wherever, in a year or two,” Belliaeff said, “just like we don’t ask parents of Spanish-speaking children if they are going to return to Mexico at some point.

“If the child has need for primary-language help while they are learning English, and the parent agrees to it, then we offer it as we have the resources to do it, on a ‘pull-out’ basis.”

The district does not have funds to provide primary language teaching in most cases where there are only a few students from a single country, and it finds that many European students already come with some English understanding, Belliaeff said. But it will try to add courses in Vietnamese, Chinese or any other language at Doyle if the need develops, he added.

The parents of the Israeli and Japanese students at Doyle also see benefits from the Doyle curriculum for their children when they return to their home countries.

“The school district goal, of course, is to help the students achieve better in English,” Zimran, the Hebrew aide, said.

“When you know your own language well enough, when you know what nouns and verbs are, for example, it’s easier then to get the English,” Zimran added, referring to the progress made by her own children, one at Doyle and the second now at Standley Junior High School.

“But of course, we want the children to keep their Hebrew up, through grammar, spelling and literature. So we also read Jack London, Mark Twain, Hemingway in Hebrew for the upper-grade kids.”

Japanese-language teacher Baum said she helps the students prepare for the regular English reading program by emphasizing recognition of English consonant and vowel sounds, but she also provides advanced math and social studies enrichment similar to what the students would receive in Japan. And she stresses the complicated Japanese writing system, with a classroom wall banner in Japanese exhorting the students to “Memorize Kanji,” the 1,850 ideograms that are the basis of the Japanese language.

“From time to time, we talk about things happening in Japan, and about Japanese festivals,” she said. “And I also give them tutoring in other subjects that they may have trouble comprehending in English, but I also give them the English words at the same time.”

While Baum said the Japanese parents hope their children will learn English, “they very much want the (Japanese) language instruction although they always worry that it is not enough . . . and most send their children as well to Saturday school (a special school paid for by the Japanese community in San Diego and overseen by educational officials from Japan). The feeling is that with the Kanji characters, you must use them or you forget them.”

‘Walks a Fine Line’

Ingalls said that the school “walks a fine line” on the primary-language curriculum.

“Obviously, primary fluency is popular with parents but legally our goal is not to have it solely for keeping the children up on their own language,” she said.

But Ingalls said that even though most children spend two years or less at Doyle, a significant number become fluent enough in English to complete the ESL curriculum. Others become highly proficient but are unable to read quickly enough to achieve the necessary score on district tests to be listed as fluent.

Despite Doyle’s large number of foreign students, the school ranks 21st out of 107 San Diego Unified School District elementaries in achievement based on standardized language and math tests.

“Yes, I think I was surprised at first about my daughter’s kindergarten class,” said Dr. Kenji Ueda, a visiting Japanese researcher in the UCSD Department of Neurosciences. “She has much homework, and that was a little surprising.”

Bjorn Hansen, from Denmark, said his son, Jakob, enjoys American schools very much.

“I had no expectations at all at first,” said Hansen, a parent volunteer at Doyle while his wife, Julia, pursues advanced studies at UCSD in biology. “The level of learning is very, very high. . . . I have no problems in sending him here. We heard about Doyle from professors at UCSD and they told us that we should not worry about the public schools.”

Afreda Beverly, a neighborhood parent volunteer, said she and her husband, a Great American executive, almost placed their daughter, Zikarra, in a private school, “but after visiting Doyle and seeing how international it is, we said that this is a good school. . . . It offers everything but prayer, but we can teach that at home.”

La Jolla resident Alma Coles, who talks with many foreign parents at UCSD as a longtime member of the Friends of the UCSD International Center, said that teachers at Doyle have both experience and expertise in dealing with an international clientele.

“I think that many parents are pleasantly surprised to find that our schools do have discipline, do have computers, that certainly there is much more than what they have seen on television (in their countries) or read about pregnancy, drugs, violence in schools,” she said.

The foreign students tend to make friends with each other more than with American students, however. Baum said that the foreign students all have in common the fact they come from elsewhere than America, that they may only be in the United States a short time, and that they speak English with an accent.

“Other foreign students can’t tell the accent difference so much,” she said.

Zimran added that while some friendships are made with Americans, “You find more my son, for example, having friends from Finland and Mexico, or my daughter with a girl from Iran, or between Japanese and Swedish.”

Principal Jordan said that the school has had little or no interracial tension, although it copes with the same problems as other schools in “trying to get children to accept one another for what they are” as part of the district’s race-human relations educational programs.

“For the most part, we haven’t had many problems come up. . . . We try and take advantage of our international basis,” Jordan said. “We take the viewpoint that we are preparing children for a diminishing world in terms of isolation and that the values we teach here for the foreign kids and our own will affect us in the future.

“Look at how much a country like Japan is involved in our country today, so in a way we are really teaching our own kids (when we teach the Japanese) and hoping that the interchange will result in an advantage to us.”