Monday, December 31, 2007

How to leave no child behind — The Big Fix: WHAT DO L.A. KIDS NEED TO THRIVE?

The Big Fix | LA Times: December 29, 2007

Bilingual education | Strong teachers | Book it | Listen to kids | Beyond the classroom | Volunteer for kids | Respect your PTA

4LAKids notes: The on-line commentary is as good as this article!

Speak globally, learn locally

I have thought a lot about language since the birth of my twin daughters this year. I speak to them in Spanish, my partner in English, and I can't help feeling that this just isn't enough.

Frankly, I'm embarrassed that I live in a state that banned "bilingual education." Those with a long political memory will recall Proposition 227, approved by the voters in 1998. It was a culture-war wedge dressed as an education issue, and no matter whether you think it helped or hindered language acquisition, it did nothing to prepare California for a global future that's already arrived.

We should view the knowledge immigrant children have of their native languages as one of our greatest strengths. Although there are about 32 "dual-language immersion" schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (most are Spanish/English, with a handful Korean/English or Mandarin/English), this is far too modest for a city that calls itself the "capital of the Pacific Rim." We need trilingual classrooms in which the immigrant kids tutor the native ones and vice versa.

This would help the cause of tolerance and understanding, but it's not about sugary multiculturalism -- it's about economics. To be competitive, everyone from the CEO to the customer service rep must be agile culturally and linguistically. English, Spanish and at least one Asian tongue ought to come with a public school education.

We turn out immigrant kids today with shaky English and a withering native language, and native kids with shaky English and a couple of tourist phrases in a second language. It is time for Californians to start speaking in the tongues we hear all around us. That's the kind of world I'd like my daughters to inherit. Which means I had better start taking classes in Armenian. Like now.

Rubén Martínez is a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University.

Honor teachers

We all know that what determines student performance is the quality of teachers in the classroom. Providing every child in Los Angeles with a great teacher is the best way to serve our kids.

So how do we get this done? We need to recruit better. We need to retain the best. We need to make the career of teaching attractive financially, paying more to those with particular skills, those who take on tough school assignments and those who produce the best results. We need to involve teachers in every effort. Today, there are great teachers in some of our classrooms. If we focus on moving that from some to most, it would be the single most important change in our youngsters' school life.

Former Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer is the chairman of ED in '08, which calls on all the presidential candidates to improve schools.

Book it

One of the great trials of childhood is writing obligatory thank-you notes, a post-holiday challenge now being undertaken in households across the country. How to sound enthusiastic and grateful, especially when the gift seems to have been selected for someone belonging to another species?

Solution: Let every aunt, uncle, grandparent, friend and parent make every gift a book, or several books. From newborn to college grad, wrap them up and hand them over in piles, because one of them will stick. It doesn't matter whether the recipient is an avid reader or not -- try audio books for kids who spend a lot of time in cars, or an offer to read the book aloud as part of the gift.

The thank-you notes still may not be very articulate. But the giver can be sure that a good book has the potential to provide a kind of global positioning system to the geography of the heart, or to worlds the reader might never have found otherwise.

Susan Patron is a former senior children's librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library and the author of "The Higher Power of Lucky," a winner of the 2007 Newbery Award.

Turn off, tune in

Imagine raising a child in a world with no television, radio, MP3 players or video games; no cellphones, smart phones, text messages or IMs. What would we have left? Conversation.

Listening is hard work. Parents too often do it badly. We're heavy on advice, judgment and solutions, but not so good at empathy, and very bad at keeping our mouths shut while our kids figure things out for themselves. Who has time?

We're supposed to speak up when there's real danger. We're not supposed to orchestrate their every move. The first 18 years of a child's life are not about building the family brand by slapping an Ivy League sticker on the back of the car. Better to listen to what the kids think, what they wonder or worry about or dream -- because that's who they are no matter where, or if, they go to college.

At the opposite extreme, take with a grain of salt the experts who say your child will turn into a monster tomorrow. They know some kids -- sadly, the ones with real complaints, because the happier ones are too busy living -- but they do not know your kid.

If you listen expecting too much or too little, you run the risk that your kid will find someone else to talk to. Listen without distraction, listen without an agenda, and you just might learn something.

Karen Stabiner edited and contributed to the anthology "The Empty Nest."

Get 'em outside the box

Let's fling open the doors of high schools and move restless kids from passive to active learning. Most education reforms now seek to cram more testable facts into kids' heads while they sit still, packed in pallid classrooms.

Sure, every teenager has to learn to read and tackle algebra. But the current approach isn't working: Fewer than half the city's 14-year-olds will complete high school. Many are distracted (by working, giving birth, dodging gangs). In a recent UC study, a majority said not one teacher really knew them well. They're disconnected.

So, how to connect? Los Angeles has an alternative model. Consider the medical magnet high school attached to Orthopaedic Hospital, which requires its 800 students to put in at least 200 hours yearly alongside nurses and doctors in health clinics and offices. The school is still new, but common sense and eyewitness testimony attest to its effects. "It teaches responsibility, keeps them motivated and engaged," says counselor Carmen Ochieta.

L.A. has other school and business partnerships (read about Lewis Chappelear's engineering program at Monroe High in North Hills on But dozens of new high schools are scheduled to open in L.A., and the majority will be kid-in-a-classroom traditional. Expand the partnerships instead, and free kids to really learn.

UC Berkeley sociologist Bruce Fuller is the author of "Standardized Childhood."

Spend your time

In these settings, success is getting tough kids engaged, and filmmaking -- storytelling -- does just that. Kids find video cameras cool, they ham it up in front of the lens, and film is a language they understand. (I've watched in surprise as a kid who didn't seem that interested instinctively transformed three shots into one, on the spot, accomplishing what the storyboard asked for, only faster and better.)

They choose the story, generally a parody (a takeoff on "8 Mile" called "42240 FT," for example, and a set of improvs based on Drew Carey's old TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"). I always insist on a script and a shooting plan, and we cast, in part, based on desire. (I've discovered there's nothing like a starring role to combat feelings of worthlessness.)

The work is incredibly rewarding. Sullen kids, forced to come to "class," end up fighting to read Bart Simpson's part in a sample-script run-through. They learn tricks of the trade, like how a skillful edit covers a blown line; they learn to work together; they learn to tell stories.

It can have lasting effects. One boy I continue to mentor landed at Santa Monica College and is making his way as a stand-up comic around L.A.

Filmmaking and storytelling are great tools to engage young people. But more important, a volunteer shows up, an adult pays attention.

Joe Petricca is executive vice dean at the American Film Institute Conservatory.

Treat your 'kuriks' well

Pity the 21st century Los Angeles PTA. Such beloved fundraising chestnuts as See's Candy sales and Christmas gift wrap drives are out, one because it trafficks in banned sugar substances, the other for encouraging the insensitive celebration of an illegally religious holiday.

Meanwhile, the few tools left in the PTA arsenal can be wildly confusing to many of our English-challenged LAUSD parents. "What is bear?" a Guatemalan mom once asked me when faced with a giant display of $1 Build-a-Bear raffle tickets. "Chuck E. Cheese fundraiser? What is? What is?"

The good news is, while there is a massive culture gap for many families new to U.S. public schools, native Angelenos can help. Recently, an Armenian mother at our school expressed a vague, haunted feeling that she was being discriminated against by the front-office staff. They just didn't seem friendly, Lucine noted, with an eyebrows-drawn-together expression that, frankly, a good deal of our newer immigrant mothers rush around with all day long.

"Kurik!" I exclaimed. (I think that's slang for "girlfriend" in Armenian -- while my pronunciation is terrible, my kuriks seem to appreciate that I at least try). "You look so anxious!"

When I suggested that Lucine start over at the principal's office with a smile and a box of Krispy Kremes, her face lit up. She didn't know you could offer doughnuts. (Our ways are complicated: sugar for kids, no; sugar for adults, si.

The point is, parent to parent, we have to build bridges because PTAs still need to fundraise -- for the new gardens or music programs it may take the district until 2025 to get. Metaphorically speaking, PTA dollars come in all colors, and via home-cooked ethnic food sales, spelling bees with admission or ... shhh, even gift wrap. Christmas gift wrap. (An incredibly hot seller -- just don't tell anyone.)

Sandra Tsing Loh's commentary appears on KPCC-FM (89.3) and in the Atlantic.

Artwork credit: Susan Tibbles / for The Times

No comments: