Los Angeles Times
July 2, 2004

Students Ask for More Foreign Language Choices

By Erika Hayasaki, Times Staff Writer


Eighteen-year-old Victor Soltero grew up speaking Spanish at home. He
read books in Spanish by Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But
at school, he wanted to learn a different language, like Italian or
French.

But at North Hollywood High School last year, those languages weren't
options.

Spanish is the only foreign language offered to most teenagers at the
5,000-student campus, where 71% of students are Latino. Only 300
students, enrolled in the school's highly gifted magnet program, have
the option of taking French.

The North Hollywood campus is one of two Los Angeles Unified School
District high schools that offer Spanish as the sole foreign language
for most students. Franklin High School in Highland Park, where 88% of
students are Latino, offers about 45 Spanish classes, but no other
foreign language.

Most L.A. Unified high schools offer French to all students. Some
offer German, Italian, Japanese, Korean or Mandarin, in addition to
Spanish. But principals at both North Hollywood and Franklin high
schools said there was not enough room or interest to add more
language programs on their campuses.

But Soltero said the interest exists - and about 200 other North
Hollywood students who wrote letters recently or signed a petition for
another language class option agreed with him. Some Franklin High
School students have also complained about the lack of options.

"Why are they limiting our choices?" said Soltero, who wants to travel
the world and meet people from different cultures. "I'm Mexican, and
it's putting my race down. It's like they're saying, 'You guys aren't
smart enough to take anything else.' "

Many students and teachers said Latinos enrolled in Spanish classes
more frequently than others because they wanted to learn about their
culture or study a subject they already understand. Sometimes, they
expected it would be easier to get a good grade.

But other students said they wanted to challenge themselves by
learning a language different from that which their parents speak at
home.

Natalie Gonzales, a native Spanish speaker and 11th-grader, wrote a
letter to the administration that stated: "It is illogical to obligate
students who speak Spanish to sit in a room for an hour every day to
'learn' Spanish. Where is the challenge? The purpose of learning a
foreign language is to enlighten and motivate and elevate the soul,
and a large percentage of fluent Spanish speakers are robbed of this
experience."

Non-Latino students have also complained, asking for more options.

North Hollywood senior Anca Giurgiulescu wrote: "How do you hope to
improve the performance of students attending North Hollywood High
School by limiting the availability of foreign language classes to
just one language? ... If students are not allowed to choose from
challenging classes, how do you hope to inspire them to strive beyond
just the minimum requirements, or in other words, to strive beyond
mediocrity?"

North Hollywood Principal Randall Delling said there is no room for
another language class on his overcrowded campus. "My God, where would
we put it?" he said. "Every single room in this school is used every
single hour of the day."

A few years ago, the campus offered French classes, but the former
principal closed the program because of a high dropout rate and
purported problems with the instructor. But the school's Spanish
program, Delling said, is superior. The program has talented teachers
and Advanced Placement students who are mastering Spanish literature.

Delling said it was absurd to claim that his campus was discriminating
against Latinos by offering only Spanish.

"I've always said I would be willing to look at a French program, or a
German program or Armenian program. That's fine," he said. "But it's
got to be a program that ... students want to stay in. Yes, there are
students who want to take all these languages, but are they willing to
continue with the program, or will we end up with all of these classes
and no one in them?"

According to state data, most California campuses offer Spanish, along
with at least one other foreign language.

Arleen Burns, of the California Department of Education, said: "We do
realize there are often constraints such as resources. In the ideal
world we would be able to offer a variety of languages to every
student in California." But she added that the situation at North
Hollywood and Franklin was rare.

Bud Jacobs, director of high school programs for L.A. Unified, said
the district encourages schools to add as many foreign language
programs as possible. But "foreign language teachers are hard to
find," he said. "It's an area that could probably use a lot more
attention."

In overcrowded schools like North Hollywood, space for core curriculum
classes, such as math, science, social studies and English, take
precedence over foreign language classes because they are graduation
requirements, Jacobs said. Foreign language is not a requirement,
though most colleges and universities require two to three years of it
for admission.

Any Los Angeles high school students who want to take a foreign
language class that their campus does not offer can enroll
concurrently in a local community college to study it, Jacobs
said. That can be complicated, however, because it requires
rearranging schedules and finding transportation.

At Franklin High, Principal Sheridan Liechty said her campus had
offered French and Mandarin in the past, but that students were not
interested in those subjects.

"Most of our kids' primary language is Spanish. They do beautifully on
AP Spanish exams," she said. "If all of your students are selecting
Spanish, you can't support hiring a French instructor."

But at the overcrowded Belmont High School near downtown, where 89% of
students are Latino, there is always a demand for the school's two
Mandarin and 16 French classes, as well as Spanish, said counselor
Lewis McCammon. French classes, he said, are packed.

"A lot of them think it's a very strong academic subject," he said.

Franklin High student Stephanie Vasquez, 17, said she would love to
take French.

"I went to Europe just this past March, and when I went to Paris," she
said, "I wish we had a [French] class so I could have been prepared."

The options, she said, limit students like her.

"I don't think it's fair," she said. "Yeah, Highland Park is a
Spanish-speaking area. But [another language] makes you prosperous in
life. It looks better on your resume."