Immigrants Learn English, New Culture : L.A. School Centers Ease Transitions

Times Staff Writer

Yellow square , yo-yo , semitrailer truck and window cleaner may not be typical words for a high school spelling bee, but this was neither a typical bee nor were these typical high school students.

The nine sweaty-palmed teen-agers took turns stepping to the mike and then, haltingly, uttered letters upon command.

Shoes was the command. "Esch, aytch, ohh, eee, ezz," was the reply.

"Rhinoceros," another student was told. "Aarrr, hetch. . . ," he began.

It was the final spelling bee at the Newcomer Center and the contestants, all recent immigrants to the United States, spelled with a variety of accents the practical words they had learned.

The center for ninth- through 11th-graders, housed at Crenshaw High School, and a companion program in Bel-Air for younger children were opened by the Los Angeles Unified School District. They aim not only to supply students with no-nonsense vocabularies but also to orient them to this country and provide psychological support and career advice. After a year at the centers, the students will move on to regular schools.

'They'll Feel Successful'

"We want boys and girls to feel good about themselves because if they do, they'll feel more successful," said Juliette Thompson, principal of Bellagio Road Newcomer School for Grades 4 through 8. "When they finish at our school, they will be able to go into any school . . . and operate successfully."

Thrust into a regular school, children new to America are often ostracized, she said, adding, ". . . they don't know the rules, how to play the games. . . ."

Students are eligible to attend the centers if their English is limited and they are new to the United States or to its schools. Most are from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. But others are from South Korea, the Philippines, China, Armenia and Bolivia.

Some have been in this country for only a few days; others had lived in Los Angeles for more than a year without enrolling in school, said Michael Bujazan, coordinator of the district's Student Guidance, Assessment and Placement Center, which places the students in the newcomer centers. Students with limited English skills from northeast Los Angeles, parts of Hollywood and other sections of the city are sent to the guidance center for testing and placement.

'High-Powered Orientation'

The district has tried to help immigrant students with six-week crash courses in American culture and English, as well as English-as-a-second-language and bilingual classes at many schools, but these programs cannot keep up with the need, administrators said. An estimated 62,000 students, more than 10% of the district's total, are immigrants who have attended U. S. schools less than three years. The crash courses barely make a dent: For the 1989-90 school year, they will only serve a fifth of these students.

The newcomer centers have a maximum enrollment of 450 students. But the centers are more comprehensive than other district programs for immigrants, said Maria Olmos, administrator of the Crenshaw center. With a slew of bilingual teachers, aides, psychologists and counselors, the purpose is "strictly high-powered orientation," she said.

More immigrants are arriving in the district every day. The guidance center tests more than 30 new students daily. They are given options of attending their neighborhood schools if the schools are not overcrowded, being bused elsewhere or, if they qualify, joining the newcomer centers. About 85% of them are eligible for the centers and 99% would be if the centers were open to all grades rather than only grades four through 11, Bujazan said.

Because of the 450-student cap, the Crenshaw program is limited mainly to residents of central Los Angeles, the area in the district receiving the most immigrants, said Gloria Sierra of the district's office of bilingual and ESL instruction. Crenshaw High was selected as a site largely because it had the available space, administrators said. Bellagio, which is taking children mostly from northeast Los Angeles and parts of Hollywood and central Los Angeles, had been unused since 1984. Most of the students are bused to the centers.

Partly because of articles in Korean- and Chinese-language newspapers, enrollment at the Crenshaw center shot up from 101 when it opened its half-day, summer session July 3, to about 225 students from 12 countries by the time it closed this month. The center, on the second floor of the high school, re-opens for a full-day schedule Sept. 12. Bellagio opened Aug. 11 with 225 students from eight nations, Thompson said.

Proposed two years ago by former school board member Alan Gershman, the centers each have annual budgets of more than $526,000 for counselors, interpreter aides, a psychologist, a nurse and other support personnel, Sierra said. In developing the centers, district officials visited school programs for newcomers in San Francisco and Long Beach.

Many of the teachers are immigrants. At the Crenshaw center, Bob Mei, who came from China last year, said he knows that his Chinese students must learn to speak up in class. Guillermo Pasillas has photos of Mexican actors Cantinflas and Lucia Mendez on the bulletin board. Pasillas said he empathizes with his 31 Latino students because when he arrived in this country from Mexico at 9, "I had to learn, sink or swim."

While the spelling bee continued, other classes at the Crenshaw center played soccer or read stories in Spanish. LaVerne Fisher's class played a version of bingo with names of fruits and vegetables, in preparation for a field trip to a supermarket.

In the room decorated with charts of U. S. coins, the Pledge of Allegiance and students' drawings of flags and maps of their native countries, teacher's assistant Eva Ramos held up placards of beets and pumpkins. Students wrote the names in squares on their papers. Later, those who know more English read from "Unusual Stories From Many Lands," while the rest copied the names of more foods.

Several students in Pasillas' class, instructed to paint something, have depicted their war-torn homelands with stick-figure civilians under a hail of bombs or bullets. Jose Lopez, 16, drew a brown eye crying and a man shooting at a bull's-eye.

One 15-year-old boy and his mother, in fleeing Guatemala three weeks ago, had guns put to their heads at the Guatemalan border, said center psychologist Bradley Pilon. Then their money was taken by Mexicans who threatened to turn them in to authorities.

Under such conditions, adjusting to life here can be difficult, Pilon said. A fight erupted one day and he wondered if it was because the students are "more on edge."

But many students don't mind reviewing spelling lists and flash cards of animals, acting out skits about friendship and singing "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain." They see this as part of their ticket to success. Spelling bee finalist Jesus Flores, who studied spelling lists but tripped on nails , said in English: "I want to be somebody someday--a medical doctor." He added that he's thrilled that he's starting to speak English.

About 90% of the students say that coming to this country was worthwhile because of the educational opportunities, Pilon said. In case they start to doubt that, the center is ready to tout the benefits of schooling.

"A high school education doesn't mean anything in this country in terms of pay," Pilon said. If a youngster just wants a job, he or she "might as well drop out now." But it does mean something in terms of future opportunities to attend college, he said. Scholarships are to be given to four students from the center who enter college, Olmos said.

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