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70 Languages, One System
Three weeks ago, Yun Qian (Cindy) Zhong, a sixth-grader assigned to Randy Helms' homeroom, walked into William Land Elementary School for the first time. She had all the gifts of a model studentintelligence, friendliness and an eagerness to learn. There was just one problem: Zhong, an immigrant from Canton, China, didn't speak a word of English.
Helms didn't panic. His students and their parents hail from as far away as Vietnam, Mexico, Germany, Portugal, Panama and, fortunately, China. By the end of Zhong's second week, Helms, with help from the Cantonese-speaking students in his class, had taught Zhong to count past 10 as well as to answer yes and no to questions translated for her.
A William Land education doesn't come easy. The school is located in a poor community downtown (90% of Land's kids qualify for free lunch), the classes are big (Helms alone teaches 32 students) and language barriers are routine (many kids' parents speak no English). Kids are tested for English proficiency within 30 days of enrolling; most score from 1 to 5 out of a maximum of 10. Across Sacramento, educators face similar challenges. How does a school district of 53,400 students communicate with a parent group that speaks more than 70 languages? And perhaps even more pressing, how much do cultural differences contribute to the fact that Latino and African-American children do not perform as well on standardized tests as white and Asian kids in the city's integrated schools?
Take John F. Kennedy High School, which at first blush is a picture of integration, with 21% white students, 22% black, 35% Asian and 16% Latino (the remainder are primarily Pacific Islanders, Filipinos and American Indians). J.F.K. routinely ships top graduates to Ivy League schools. But while the typical Asian kid has a 3.01 grade-point average, African-American kids score 1.85. What's going on? School district superintendent Jim Sweeney attributes the gap to class differences. J.F.K. students come from two neighborhoodsa middle-class area known as the Pocket, and a low-income, predominantly black and Hispanic part of town called Meadowview. Lower-income parents, he says, are often less able to spend time helping their kids with homework and encouraging them to learn. "Some surveys say poor children actually hear a million less words a year in the formative years," he says.
That explanation is too simplistic for Patricia Gandara, a University of California at Davis professor of education and Sacramento resident. She believes that teachers and administrators stereotype students on the basis of race. There are plenty of examplesfrom the teacher who asked a Latino boy if his parents had jobs (his mother was a school principal) to the Mexican child in an advanced-placement class who was asked whether she was Asian (her classmates couldn't imagine that a Latina could perform so well). "The schools make assumptions along class lines about which parents care and which don't, and parents and children begin to read those signs very early," Gandara says.
The district is making some progress in closing the gap. One effective method: home visits, which foster a relationship between teachers and parents and encourage working together to meet a child's needs. Suggested by a parent in 1998, the program helped boost reading scores in the district's elementary schools 36% and math scores 73% (reading and math scores are still only at the 46th and 59th national percentile, respectively).
The Most Segregated Hour
It is Sunday morning in Sacramento's Meadowview community, and hundreds of Russian-speaking immigrantsmen in dark suits, women in traditional head scarves, children excited about the latest X-box gameare thronging into the First Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church. A couple of blocks away, African Americans fill the sanctuary at Twenty-Fourth Street Baptist Church to listen to the Rev. Samuel Mullinax preach the same Gospel. An hour later, Latinos begin filing into the pews of nearby St. Anne's Catholic Church for a Spanish- language Mass. Meadowview residents live together, but many pray separately.