Glendale: Breaking down barriers

Glendale News Press
March 26 2004

Breaking down barriers

Bilingual students often help bridge the communication gap
English-language learners might have.

By Gary Moskowitz, News-Press

GLENDALE – That Sona Markaryan speaks English and Armenian fluently
makes her, and students like her, an asset in many Glendale Unified
School District classrooms.

Nearly 40% of the students enrolled in the district speak a primary
language other than English, and nearly all of those students are
enrolled in the district’s English Language Development program.

English-language learners typically receive about two hours per day
of specialized instruction in reading, speaking and writing. The rest
of the day, they sit in classes with proficient English speakers.

With more than 35 students in some high school classrooms, bilingual
students can prevent the more limited English speakers from getting
completely lost during class discussions, said Sona, a senior at
Glendale High School and student member of the district’s Board of

“I think [bilingual students] step in a lot and help, without being
asked to,” said Sona, 17. “It’s just common sense. It’s like a human
thing to do. You can sense that [the English learners] need help.

“I was born in Armenia, and came here when I was 4, so I never had
trouble with the language. But kids who come here when they are older
can get confused when the teacher explains things. Lots of times, I
will explain things in Armenian, and then go back and say the same
thing in English, to tie it together,” Sona said.


Edison Elementary School Principal Linda Conover said bilingual or
multilingual students helping English learners keep up in class
happens naturally, without teachers having to ask for it.

“It happens without us even knowing, sometimes,” Conover said.
“Sometimes we formally assign students to help other students, but
many times it’s informal, and students come together and help each
other. Many of them are very compassionate and very empathetic.
There’s a lot of commonality and camaraderie.

“What students do mostly is help with translating, but it’s not a
formal English-language lesson. They let them know what’s going on,
and it’s extremely successful. The [bilingual student] becomes
someone they can identify with and communicate with. It bridges a
gap,” Conover said.


All English learners in the program must pass five levels of English
Language Development classes to be considered fluent. To graduate,
they need to pass through the five levels of proficiency in addition
to normal graduation requirements in all subject areas, said Mary
McKee, an assistant superintendent for educational services for the

Students who do not meet those requirements have a few options. They
can stay on an extra year as “Super Seniors,” take extra English
classes at Glendale Community College or pursue their General
Educational Development degree, which is equivalent to a high school

By law, the district is only responsible for students through the age
of 18, but if a student is showing promise and is cooperating, the
district can make exceptions, McKee said.

“It is not easy,” McKee said. “They have to work very hard. If they
come in as a 10th-grader, it’s hard. As a junior or senior, it’s
almost impossible. We can’t do four years of instruction in one or
two years. Keep in mind that these kids are then going into math
classes and history classes while still trying to learn words in

“We have to support them with translations where necessary and enough
modeling and examples so that they understand the concepts that are
being taught. In teaching the meaning of ‘democracy,’ just
translating is not enough. We have to make enough relevant
connections, and you just can’t just say it once,” McKee continued.

“Teachers try to make connections to what students are already
familiar with. They connect by understanding what it’s not, or what
it’s different from.”


Crescenta Valley High School senior Mary Paik entered the English
Language Development program as a sophomore after moving here from
Korea. She spoke very little English.

She recently finished the program and is now considered a fluent
English speaker by state standards. Her parents speak Korean at home,
but Mary mostly speaks English with her younger brother, Howard, who
is a sophomore at her school. Mary will graduate this summer.

After two years in the ELD program, Mary said that, overall, she is
glad she took the English learner classes but sometimes felt like her
time was being wasted.

“I liked the classes, because they helped me a lot with my grammar,
writing and listening, and taught me about the culture of America,”
said Mary, 17. “I think if classes were shortened a little bit, it
might be better, so you could take other classes you want to take.
It’s not hard to understand if you study at home.

“I think sometimes teachers think your intelligence is lower than it
is, and that hurts. Once, a teacher asked us to color pictures, and I
felt like I was in elementary school,” Mary said.