Dual-language schools lure students, parents back to LA Unified

Specialized teachers teachers at Mar Vista's Grand View Elementary School  handle eight classes with curricula in English and Spanish.
Specialized teachers teachers at Mar Vista's Grand View Elementary School handle eight classes with curricula in English and Spanish.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/ KPCC

For years, middle- and upper-middle-class parents in parts of Los Angeles Unified have sent their children to private schools, charter schools and schools outside the district. However, a nascent dual-language program is attracting some of them back to neighborhood schools. District administrators voted Tuesday to protect hundreds of dual-language teachers from being let go in the hope that the trickle of returning parents will develop into a stream.

L.A.'s Mar Vista neighborhood is home to large pockets of working-class Spanish-speaking immigrants and smatterings of dual-income professional households. The mix is visible at Grand View Elementary School.

On Tuesday, Principal Alfredo Ortiz walked into Sonia Calo’s Spanish dual-language kindergarten class. About a third of the class is Asian, white or African-American. The rest are Latinos. At this school, specialized teachers handle eight classes with curricula in English and Spanish.

"Me puedes leer lo que escribiste esta mañana? Lealo," teacher Sonia Calo asked one of her students. The reply: "Lo que me gusto de kinder fue ir a arte con Sra Baldonado."

This boy is not a native Spanish speaker. His family’s part of a growing movement among parents to raise kids who speak two languages. Ninety percent of this child’s instruction is in Spanish; the other 10 percent’s in English. The proportions will adjust until they’re half-and-half in the fifth grade.

"It’s dynamic because two parts of the brain are developing and they’re thinking in two forms," says Calo.

Unlike bilingual education of a generation ago, dual immersion’s goal isn’t transition into English. It emphasizes enriched foreign language instruction alongside English.

Principal Alfredo Ortiz says his school’s dual-language program has attracted middle-class parents from Santa Monica, Culver City and Inglewood. That demand’s translated into two new dual-language classes at his school next year.

"I think it's parents level of education," says Ortiz. "I think the more the parent knows, the more the parent is aware of the importance of coming up, or growing up bilingual, I think is what propels these parents to look for options."

Diminishing options have drawn some middle-class parents back to L.A. Unified. The school district made it harder for parents to enroll their kids at public campuses beyond its boundaries, and the economy’s placed private school tuition beyond many families’ reach.

However, in recent years, budget-related layoffs have threatened this and other dual-language programs. Calo says the layoff notices in some of her colleagues’ mailboxes have put a damper on their achievements.

"It’s a very fearful mood," she says. "It’s a very sad mood. There’s a lot of emotions entailed in it because you have warmed up to teachers and you’ve seen the success of having them in the program."

The L.A. Unified school board approved a resolution to protect about 200 dual-language teachers from layoffs in the coming year. Board member Margueritte LaMotte cast the lone “no” vote, because she maintained that the action singles out some teachers for special treatment.

"Where is the equity in access?" she asks. "Can we bring resolutions and try to get equity for the other students for whom all these other programs have been cut?"

L.A. Unified is developing nine new dual-language classes across the district, including some in Korean, Mandarin and Arabic.

Nona Randois’s kindergartener is a dual-language immersion student at Aldama Elementary School in Highland Park.

"If the teachers in this program were not so experienced and trained and dedicated to dual-language education," she said, "we would likely have to enroll our son in a dual-language program in Glendale or Pasadena, or send him to one of the many fine charter schools in our area."

To try and prevent parents from voting with their feet, L.A. Unified administrators have drawn up a three-year plan to strengthen dual-language immersion programs from kindergarten through 12th grade.