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Facing the Poverty Factor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s 5:30 p.m., time for homework at the Rocha house. Nine-year-old Ruben pulls two wads of paper from his pants pocket, his reading and vocabulary lessons. He sits slumped on a lumpy blue couch flanked by three of his brothers.

In another room, Ruben’s mother tends to his severely disabled baby brother. His father lies on a bed staring at a wall, depressed after failing to land a job on a nearby street corner as a day laborer.

It’s up to Ruben’s 16-year-old brother, Ernie, to help the third-grader with his homework. “This is easy, Ruben,” his brother says in rapid-fire Spanish. “You just fill in the missing letters in these words.”

Ruben blinks at the page, then scrawls a few wobbly letters with a pencil he sharpened on a patch of exposed concrete in his bedroom floor. No sooner does his pencil leave the page then he glances up at the television blaring atop a chest of drawers.

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Ernie doesn’t check Ruben’s work for errors, and after about 10 minutes, the high school junior leaves the room. Ruben quickly sets the assignment aside to concentrate on the cartoons.

Once again Ruben doesn’t finish his homework, and the shy little boy who lives in a converted garage in Boyle Heights falls a little further behind his classmates. Barely able to read at a first-grade level, Ruben is headed for academic failure.

He is among the thousands of third-graders in the Los Angeles region who cannot read at grade level and are in danger of falling hopelessly behind in school. And like many of those children, he is poor.

Ruben illustrates one of the most daunting challenges facing educators today: teaching students how to read in schools, families and communities that are mired in poverty.

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In the five-year span ending in 1996, the number of children living in poverty in Los Angeles County doubled to about 651,000. Those youngsters represent 33% of all school-age children in the county, according to the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

Scores Decline as Poverty Increases

Poverty exerts a powerful impact on student achievement. Studies have consistently shown that wealth is the strongest influence on test scores. As the percentage of poor students increases, scores decline.

The 100 worst-performing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, were clustered in the poorest neighborhoods. In all but five of the schools, at least two-thirds of the students qualified for free and reduced-cost lunches.

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“We were always very successful academically when our kids were coming from middle-class families,” said Sue Shannon, coordinator of instruction for the district, which ranks at the bottom third in the nation on most standardized tests. “What we need to do now is learn to be successful with children who are coming from lower economic areas, because that’s the kind of children we have today.”

Sitting on a rusty metal folding chair outside the $280-a-month converted garage, Ruben’s father, Ernesto, said he wants his boys to succeed in school.

“If the school calls with a problem regarding one of my boys, I hurry over there the same day,” added Rocha, who hasn’t held a steady job since hurting his back several months ago. “My wife and I even went to a yearlong domestic violence class last year, which helped us focus on our children’s needs.”

Guadalupe Rocha, who manages the family’s income of $1,375 a month in public assistance, interrupts her husband to suggest that being an attentive parent has become a luxury since the baby was born.

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“Of course, I want them all to finish school,” she said. “I don’t want them to wind up like my husband, unable to find work. But what can we do? We have many children and a baby with many problems.”

“Each morning, I ask myself, ‘Who gets my attention today, my sons or the baby,’ 9-month-old Angel. The baby wins.”

So the six older boys, ages 4 through 17, take care of themselves in a cramped bedroom that also serves as the family den. It is where the Rocha children struggle through their homework, roughhouse and watch television. It is also where the family welcomes guests and county social workers.

The family’s few books are in that room: a tattered high school history text, a first-grade-level Spanish-language reader, and a Bible belonging to Ruben’s oldest brother, Hugo, who says he is trying to stay away from the gang life.

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“One of the most direct ways in which poverty compromises our ability to teach is that poor kids don’t have access to books,” said Ted Mitchell, former dean of the UCLA school of education and Mayor Richard Riordan’s advisor on educational issues. “And the parents of children in poverty typically don’t have the time nor the background to supplement the work that goes on in school.”

Parents Need to Be Involved

The desire to solve that problem is producing a new consensus: Intensive reading instruction must be supported by programs that encourage parents in low-income communities to become actively involved in the educational process at home and at school.

Wayne Cornelius, professor of political science and director of studies and programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego, said it is especially important to reach out to immigrant parents.

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“The notion that we can tinker with curriculum and teacher training and such things and expect to solve these problems in academic development is illusory,” he said. “There are simply too many obstacles outside the school that can inhibit an immigrant child’s educational performance.

“These are parents who are acutely concerned about their children’s education, but they lack basic tools needed to help,” Cornelius said. “First and foremost is proficiency in English.”

Ernesto Rochas, 40, received two years of formal schooling in Mexico. “I can help a little with simple mathematics,” he said. “But I can’t read English. So I can’t help any of them with reading.”

Ruben sets out for school each day at 7:30 a.m. He walks two blocks from his hillside home, past clumps of cactus and walls covered with gang graffiti to Room 3 in the bunker-like campus of Malabar Elementary School.

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Ruben sits in the front row, seated by the teacher beside one of the brightest children in the class. He was in bilingual education until this year but is unable to read proficiently in either English or Spanish.

Typically squirming in his chair, he gets a lot of attention from teacher Leonor Alvarez, as well as a bilingual teacher’s assistant.

But progress has been hard won, concedes Alvarez, who counts Ruben among several children in her classroom with serious reading problems.

“He doesn’t do his homework, which can be frustrating,” she said with a sigh. “And he needs so much praise and motivation. Some days, though, that works like a charm.”

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Some days, it doesn’t work at all. On a recent day he seemed to be adrift in his own world as his classmates labored over phonics lessons. More often than not he was aimlessly flipping through pages of his textbook, or mimicking other students as they sounded out vowels and consonants instead of reading them off the page himself.

“Ah ah ostrich,” Ruben said, studying the mouths of the children around him. “Uh uh up. Eh eh egg.”

Teacher Sees Boy’s Potential

Alvarez knows Ruben is capable of much more. After class, his insecurities and shyness seem to melt away. He writes more clearly, has less trouble recognizing words on the chalkboard and answers basic questions with a certainty rarely seen under the watchful eyes of his classmates.

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“He’s got potential, he really does,” Alvarez insists. “But he lacks confidence.”

In any case, there will be no coddling in the class, vowed Alvarez, who was 12 when she migrated with her family to East Los Angeles from Bogota, Colombia.

During a basic reading and writing lesson--completing the sentence, “I am special because . . . "--she scanned their progress. If they made mistakes, she made them start over.

At first Ruben froze up. “I don’t have a sentence, teacher,” he muttered under his breath. Then he turned to the smart girl beside him and asked, “Can you help me?”

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The girl grabbed the pencil out of his hand and wrote the start of the sentence he was to finish. Ruben eventually came up with a disappointing incomplete version of his own. “i wm spesial . . . “

Ruben is among 955 students at Malabar--many of them poor first-generation Latinos. The school is at the eastern edge of one of the most densely populated and economically disadvantaged areas in the state. About 86% of the school’s third-graders could not read at grade level on last spring’s standardized test.

The school’s only tutoring program for struggling readers serves about a dozen first-graders a year. Second-grade teacher Francisca Gamez desperately wants to start an after-school remedial reading program for older students.

First, however, she must win a modest $2,500 grant from the district.

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“If I get the money, I’ll spend $300 or so on magnetic letters, chalkboards, easels, flannel letters and notebooks,” she said, crossing her fingers. “The rest would pay me to tutor six students at a time for 10 weeks, two hours a week.”

Ruben would be among her first after-school students.

For now, Ruben’s parents are at odds with school officials, who suspect he may suffer from a learning disability and want him placed in a special education class.

A year ago, Ruben received special help in reading before and sometimes after class from his second-grade teacher. Now, school officials, who have monitored his progress over the past year, want him tested and taken out of mainstream classrooms.

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But the Rochas fear their son would be stigmatized by such a move. Beyond that, his mother said, it didn’t help with three other sons who have been placed in special education classes.

“It’s a waste of time,” she said. “They don’t push kids in special education. Better to keep Ruben where he is.”

She may be right. A recent federal examination of the Latino education experience concluded that large numbers of Latino students--English learners and English speakers alike--are classified as “seriously emotionally disturbed” or “learning disabled” and referred to special education programs.

However, given that virtually all of Ruben’s teachers have reported that he seems to have trouble processing information, the Rochas’ resistance to special education is a painful puzzle for Malabar Elementary psychologist Helene Powers.

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“I’m worried that if he does not get special assistance, teacher after teacher will want to refer him to special ed for years to come,” Powers said. “Eventually, he’ll feel inadequate and helpless. Eventually, he won’t care at all.

“But I just don’t know what we can do about poverty and the stresses that may be bringing into his life,” she said. “There are tons of Rubens in this city. We’ve got to get more parents like his involved.

“But around here, many parents cannot afford books. Or if they have them in the house, they can’t read them. Or they are worried about their car breaking down, or about their kids joining gangs, or about surviving an illness without insurance.”

Many Families Below Poverty Level

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So it goes in Boyle Heights, a community of 108,477 people where only about 13% of adults have a high school diploma, according to a school district survey. The median household income in the area is $22,534, with about 44% of all residents living below the poverty level.

The Rocha family gets by on an annual income of about $16,500, roughly $12,200 below the federal poverty level for a family their size.

Los Angeles School Supt. Ruben Zacarias says he wants to infuse Boyle Heights and the rest of his vast district with a plethora of new and expanded intervention programs--after school, Saturday school, tutorials and summer school--aimed at making reading proficiency the focus of early education.

“We have too many children who, perhaps because of socioeconomic and language problems, need additional help they are not currently getting at home or at school,” Zacarias said. “But their being poor does not get [educators] off the hook.”

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A month ago, Los Angeles Unified launched its first formal investigation into the correlation between poverty and illiteracy. Of particular interest is a handful of schools in extremely poor communities that consistently produce high test scores, and the possibility of reproducing their success elsewhere.

The district also is trying to break down socioeconomic barriers by showing even the poorest mothers and fathers how to be better advocates for their children’s education under the auspices of its 4-year-old Parent Community Services Office.

“We want to break the stigma that says effective parents are sophisticated college graduates who drive shiny new cars and live in tidy homes with white picket fences,” said administrator Manuel Ponce. “Those things aren’t true in our district.”

“A parent may not be able to read to their children, for example, but we show them that they can listen--and just listening to a child read can make a difference,” Ponce said. “It can give the act of reading a certain importance and dignity.”

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Ernesto and Guadalupe Rocha, who were among hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who immigrated to the United States from Mexico City in the mid-1980s, say they are anxious to try new strategies.

But they haven’t learned to speak English, which would dramatically increase their ability to support their children’s education and boost their earning power.

Until the baby was born, the family took day trips together to local parks, the San Gabriel Mountains, neighborhood carnivals and downtown shopping strips such as Broadway. These days, the boys lounge in their rooms, watch television, play noisy games of soccer and basketball on a massive slab of sloping concrete surrounding their house, or lift weights.

Teenager Ernie, who occasionally helps his four younger brothers with their homework, recently took Ruben to the nearby red brick Malabar branch of the Los Angeles City Library.

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Librarians Voice Concern

The fact that so many local children can’t read at grade level is at once a heartbreaking shame and a challenge for Malabar branch children’s librarian Dora Suarez.

“It’s frustrating, having this huge library and yet being unable to offer them books they should be able to read at their age level,” she said. “How did that happen? I really don’t know.”

Sorting through a stack of books for beginning readers, senior librarian Judy Donovan agreed.

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“Charlotte’s Web is a fourth-grade-level book, but very few of our fourth-graders could get through it--and I’m sick over it,” she said, holding up a copy of the book. “My thing is to get a kid and a book together, not to teach them to read. But they’re just not being taught to read.”

A mile away, Ruben is back on his old blue couch at home with Ernie, who is trying to help him get through another batch of homework. This time, the lessons involve spelling out numbers, short vowels and reading.

Tired of competing with the television, Ernie gets up and turns it off in a huff. “Listen to me, Ruben,” Ernie says. “I’ll read the words and then you repeat them.”

Ruben struggles to recognize the letters, then blend their sounds into words.

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“One. Four. Seven,” he says correctly. Then, looking up, he says, “I like to read.”

Information about the Los Angeles Times’ Reading by 9 program and how you can get involved is on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/readingby9


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