Help Wanted: Asian Bilingual Teachers : Torrance Schools Struggle to Catch Up With Growing Influx of Children from Pacific Rim

Times Staff Writer

Before school reopens in September, the Torrance Unified School District wants to recruit 13 bilingual teachers to fill vacancies in special classes for recent Asian immigrants.

It may not be possible to find them.

The shortage of bilingual teachers is key among several problems faced by Torrance schools in educating a growing number of students from Pacific Rim nations.

In the past six years, the number of Asian students with limited English proficiency (LEP) has nearly doubled--from 700 to 1,300 in the 19,000-student district.


Supt. Edward J. Richardson said he is pleased with the district’s overall efforts to educate these students, but he said that the district could do a better job if it had more certified bilingual teachers.

Certified Teachers Scarce

Because of the scarcity of certified Asian-language bilingual teachers throughout Southern California, the district this past year staffed six of 19 Asian bilingual classes with teachers who were in the process of obtaining certification.

One result of the lack of bilingual teachers is that the district has limited its bilingual education programs to elementary schools, said Norma Wilson, the district’s curriculum consultant.

The district also has had difficulty finding serviceable Asian-language and bilingual books, Wilson said.

Such books are “hard to find and expensive once you find them. . . . There are many we haven’t found yet,” she said. And, even when they are found, many texts published in Asia for Asian students are not geared to grade levels or teaching techniques used in the United States.

Temporary Work Visas

A third problem, cited primarily by teachers, is the high turnover among some Asian students whose families come to the United States on temporary work visas. Teachers say the rate of turnover disrupts class continuity and makes teaching difficult.


Wilson suggested that the only way to address the problem is to treat every child the same. “Kids come and go,” she said. “We assume that when they come in they are our students” and are staying permanently.

These problems are not exclusive to Torrance. Nevertheless, how district officials solve them will directly affect hundreds of recent Asian immigrants, many of whom are already struggling to adapt to a new culture, a new school and new friends.

Hyun Cho, a 10-year-old student at Victor Elementary School this spring, came to Torrance two years ago when his father was transferred from his job as an executive at an iron company in Korea to a branch office in Torrance.

When he first arrived at Victor, Cho spoke no English, and adjusting to a new environment was difficult. Cho was enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program. He said learning English was often frustrating and, to help him understand his teacher’s instructions, he befriended another Korean boy who spoke English and translated for him.

That, however, did not always work. “Sometimes when he was absent it was like very hard to understand the teacher,” said Cho, who now understands and speaks English.

In the last 10 years, the percentage of Asian and Asian-American students in Torrance schools has jumped from 13% to 27%, say district officials. Some are second- and third-generation Americans. Others fled with their parents from poverty or repression in their native countries. Some have little education; others have years of schooling.


Much of the recent Asian migration to Torrance has come with the growth in Pacific Rim trade. For example, the Japan Business Assn. of Southern California in 1983 represented 130 corporations. Six years later, the group had 211 corporate members in the South Bay alone, said spokeswoman Rika Hiroto.

In 1982, the district had about 700 LEP students who spoke Asian languages.

By 1988, the Torrance district had the highest number of Japanese LEP students in the state--595--and it ranked fourth in the number of Korean-speaking LEP students (407) and 10th in the number of Mandarin-speaking LEP students (159), according to state Department of Education figures.

About 140 other LEP students in Torrance schools speak Cantonese, Vietnamese, Pilipino, Cambodian and other Asian languages.

Spanish, Farsi, Arabic

There are also about 700 LEP students who speak other languages, including Spanish, Farsi, Portuguese, Arabic and Armenian. A substantial portion of them are taught in ESL programs.

The district tries to set up a bilingual class when there are 10 students enrolled in an elementary school grade with a common primary language other than English, said administrators.

A second class would be added once 20 students share a common language, and so on. When there are fewer than 10 of those students to a grade, they usually are placed in an ESL program. That was the case with fourth-grader Hyun Cho.


Teachers in bilingual education programs teach basic subjects such as math and reading in the student’s native language. Teachers in ESL classes teach only in English, gearing their speech to a student’s language proficiency and using props and pantomime to aid comprehension.

Neither Method Favored

In both methods, it usually takes about three years for students with limited English skills to attain a level of proficiency that will allow them to join a regular classroom, said Torrance officials. They added that they do not find one method superior.

Still, teachers and administrators say many recent Asian immigrant students go on to very successful academic careers. They attribute the success primarily to the support students get from parents and the emphasis parents put on academics.

Although the parents of many Asian immigrants do not speak English proficiently, they volunteer as teacher aides and spend a great deal of time meeting with teachers after school.

“It really helps when parents take an interest in a child’s education,” said Patty Hughes, a third-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School.

Asian families who live throughout the city say they were drawn to Torrance in part by the school system’s reputation and its programs for immigrant students, said Clara Park, the district’s coordinator for federal Title VII funds, which are used to help pay for ESL and bilingual education programs.


Hiroto agreed. She said when Japanese business executives move into the area they consider the reputation of the schools. Hiroto said business executives speak highly of Torrance’s bilingual and ESL programs.

“They say it is a good system. They say they don’t have anything like that in Japan” for students who don’t speak Japanese, she said.

The district’s efforts have also received good marks from parents in the Asian community, according to Ikuyo Iwao, mother of two boys who attend Hickory Elementary School.

Pleased With District

Iwao, who came to California from Japan three years ago after her husband got a job as an architect for a construction company in Long Beach, said she believes most parents in the Asian community are pleased with the district’s efforts.

Still, some parents criticize bilingual education because they believe students learn English faster if they are forced to speak only English, said Iwao, who is chairwoman of the district’s Bilingual Advisory Committee.

Some of these parents have refused to sign the forms needed to enroll their children in bilingual programs. “They are really serious about this,” said Gail Wickstrom, assistant superintendent for educational services. Those students are usually placed in ESL classes, she said. Parents’ permission is not required for placement in ESL classes.


The district, with a budget of $72 million for the 1989-90 fiscal year, has no separate budget for bilingual education and no estimate of the cost of administering the bilingual and ESL programs.

In order to help meet the needs of its new Asian students, the district has received three federal grants that in 1988-89 totaled more than $1.7 million. The grants, which extend over several years, buy Asian-language educational material, pay for new classroom aides and fund bicultural awareness activities to bridge the cultural gap between recent immigrants and other students. The funds were also used to produce bilingual course guides to help Asian language students understand educational materials written in English.

Cope With Stress

In addition to having to conquer the language gap, the young Asian newcomers must cope with stress that results from cultural differences, as well as pressure from peers and parents, say students, teachers and administrators.

Richard Rose, assistant principal at West High School, said some parents pressure their children to learn English and get good grades but do not allow for the handicaps they face in learning a new language.

Rose recalled how this spring a young Asian girl visited his office weeping, and asked him to intervene for her with her parents.

“The pressure (from parents) is tremendous,” he said. “It puts an unbelievable amount of pressure on students . . . and sometimes it’s detrimental.”


Linda Choi, a 14-year-old ESL student whose family moved to Torrance from Korea two years ago, agreed: “My mother and father push me to get good grades,” she said, “but it’s hard because of the language.”

Cultural differences can cause difficulties in the classroom, as well. Victor Elementary School Principal Laura Love said that many students from Asian countries are accustomed to autocratic teachers who ask students simply to memorize lessons. Such students sometimes have trouble showing personal expression and individualism when they come to the United States, she said.

Students Are Shy

Kiyoko Sasaki, a Japanese-speaking certified bilingual teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, said Asian youngsters are taught in their native country not to speak up in class and never to look an elder square in the eye. Working with such students can be difficult because they are shy about voicing their opinions, she said.

Both said this cultural gap can be bridged. The solution is to “make the situation as safe as possible and don’t blast them if they don’t speak up,” Sasaki said.

Eun Young Pack, a 16-year-old Korean ESL student at South High School, said some American youngsters make the newcomers’ transition tougher by teasing Asian students and resisting attempts at friendship.

“American people don’t like us because they don’t understand us,” she said. “They say, ‘Why don’t you go back to Korea?’ ”


Richardson said he has heard of some racially motivated confrontations between students, but not enough to cause concern. “It’s not a problem,” he said.

Caught Off Guard

The problems facing the Torrance district are matched by those at schools in the San Gabriel Valley and Long Beach, where immigration from Asian nations is also substantial.

In the Alhambra Unified School District, students of Asian ancestry are in the majority. Their number has risen from 17% in 1977 to 52% of the student population today.

“People here were caught off guard” by the growth, said Suanna Gilman-Ponce, coordinator of bilingual and bicultural education for the district. She said Alhambra--whose immigrants are predominantly Chinese, Vietnamese and Latino--is struggling with some of the same problems as Torrance, though Alhambra has experienced some racially motivated violence.

Administrators in Alhambra have gone as far as Vancouver, British Columbia, and to Taiwan to find bilingual teachers with teaching credentials. The district has made some inroads into solving this and other problems, but Gilman-Ponce said: “I think we have a long way to go.”

In the Long Beach Unified School District, 17,000 of the district’s 67,000 students are Asian or Asian-American, most of them Cambodian. District spokesman Richard Van Der Laan said the district is also using bilingual aides to help fill the need for bilingual teachers with credentials.


Improved Their Recruiting

“What we are doing is working,” he said. “But it is not like having the fully credentialed teachers we want.”

Although Torrance administrators are still hard pressed to find all the bilingual teachers the district needs, they say they have improved their recruiting.

“Up to now we have just been eking by” in the search for bilingual teachers, Wickstrom said. “It’s a problem. But I’m optimistic because three or four years ago, I didn’t know what to do about it and now I know what to do.”

There are 31 certified bilingual teachers--12 certified in Japanese, one in Korean and 18 in Spanish--among the district’s 1,146 teachers.

By fall, the district wants to add nine certified Japanese-language bilingual teachers, four certified Korean-language teachers and two Spanish-language bilingual teachers, in addition to the six teachers who are in the process of becoming certified to teach in Asian languages.

Advertise on Campuses

Wickstrom said finding bilingual teachers is the biggest challenge the district faces in educating Asian immigrants.


One technique the district has been using is to advertise for bilingual teachers on college campuses and in local Asian-language newspapers and magazines. Wilson said she expects some new applicants to come from the district staff, which has several teachers and aides who speak Asian languages but who are not bilingual certified.

To encourage staff to take the bilingual certification tests, the district is offering to pay the $64 cost of the test. The district also uses federal funds to train teachers to pass the test.

One of the reasons the district cannot find Asian-language bilingual teachers is simply that very few exist, said Rebecca Salazar, director of bilingual testing services at USC, which provides bilingual certification tests in Southern California.

Compared to other languages, the Asian-language certification tests find few takers. “The examining pool is extremely small” for Asian languages, Salazar said.

Certification Tests

Last year about 5,000 people took certification tests for Spanish at USC, but fewer than 200 took tests for Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese combined, she said. About 70% to 80% of those who take the Asian certification exams pass.

Locating and purchasing a wide range of educational materials in Asian languages is also a difficult and expensive task.


Publishers have “classics like ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ or ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ” said Kikuko Nishi, Title VII director for the district’s middle schools. “But they don’t have American history. Anything having to do with America they don’t have.”

Because of the exchange rates and shipping costs, school officials are finding that Japanese language books are much more expensive than they thought they would be. Some books printed in Tokyo cost up to 40% more than their English counterparts, said Henry Kornman, director of sales and marketing for Nippon Shuppan Hanbai Inc., a wholesale and retail distributor of Japanese language books in Los Angeles.

Some Asian-language books cannot be used in American schools because they have been written for students in Japan, China, or Korea, where teaching techniques and grade levels differ from those in the United States, school officials said.

Bilingual Course Guides

In order to make the best of limited resources, three years ago the district used part of a $900,000 federal grant to create bilingual course guides for 19 high school courses.

The course guides, written in English and Japanese, Korean or Mandarin, translate key terms, provide an outline of the course and help students understand the basic concepts discussed in class, Wilson said. The guides have been adopted by other districts in the county, she said.

“I don’t know anyone else who is doing this,” she said. “It’s just marvelous.”

The district also uses a portion of its federal money to teach immigrant Asian students about American culture. The students take field trips to the state Capitol, watch educational films and take part in cultural awareness activities, such as assemblies and festivals.


Also troublesome is the high student turnover rate, which some teachers attribute to parents who are working on one- to five-year business contracts with foreign companies.

The rate varies among schools. The highest is at Victor Elementary School, which also has the most LEP students in the district: 150 out of an enrollment of 650.

“The turnover rate is amazing,” said Kathleen Kennedy, a fourth-grade teacher at Victor Elementary School, where about three students a day are either enrolling in or leaving the school. Many of them are Asian.

High Turnover Rate

Principal Love said she does not know why Victor has such a high turnover rate.

Teachers at Victor and other schools throughout the district said that the coming and going of students makes learning harder for them and frustrates teachers.

They said that some immigrant Asian families leave their native country when schools let out there, arriving in Torrance in April and May--long after classes are under way. In some cases, business contracts force families to pull children out of school before the school year is completed, they said. The majority of families on temporary assignment stay in the United States three to five years.

The turnover rate makes it difficult to assess the schools’ bilingual and ESL programs, since some students leave them before they get into mainstream classes.


Teachers and administrators say there is little they can do about this.

“Gosh, just when we get the kids in special classes and they begin to learn something, they are gone,” said Kennedy. “But it’s our job.”

Although Wilson agreed that the turnover rate is a dilemma, she was more optimistic: “Overall, I wouldn’t call that a problem,” she said. Asian immigrants have “really enriched our town and our school district. It’s kind of exciting to see the multicultural flare they bring us.”


Figures list the number of Torrance Unified School District students with limited English skills by their primary language. The most common first language of limited-English-speaking students in 1982 and 1988 was Japanese; other languages spoken by Torrance students in small numbers include Cambodian, Farsi, Arabic and Samoan. The school district had 20,468 students in 1982 and about 19,000 in 1988.

1982 1988 Japanese 319 595 Korean 217 407 Spanish 278 289 Mandarin 60 159 Vietnamese 51 56 Cantonese 52 48 Other Chinese languages NA 38 Pilipino 11 31 Other languages 123 363 TOTAL students with 1,111 1,986 limited English skills

SOURCE: Bilingual Education Office, State Department of Education