Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

El Segundo High valedictorian inspired, motivated by school custodian

El Segundo High student inspired, motivated by school custodian

June 24, 2013

El Segundo High valedictorian Kevin Qualls was inspired by an unusual mentor, school custodian William Ochoa. Qualls hung around the school while waiting for his mother to pick him up for their commute to South L.A. and the pair struck up a friendship. Ochoa, left, with Kevin in front of the school. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)
El Segundo High valedictorian Kevin Qualls was inspired by an unusual mentor, school custodian William Ochoa. Qualls hung around the school while waiting for his mother to pick him up for their commute to South L.A. and the pair struck up a friendship. Ochoa, left, with Kevin in front of the school. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)

It is often said that, to succeed academically, students need just one adult on campus to believe in them. For Kevin Qualls, a recent graduate of El Segundo High, that person was the school custodian.

In truth, many adults at the school surely believed in Kevin — who graduated earlier this month in the top 5 percent of his class. But in custodian William Ochoa, Kevin saw a kindred spirit.

Both grew up in poverty-stricken south Los Angeles, where Kevin still lives. Both were raised in single-parent families with an absent father. Both were outsiders who felt embraced by a suburban community whose quaint small-town architecture feels a world away from the gritty neighborhoods they’ve called home.

“Everybody shows me so much love here,” Kevin said.

Their friendship began one day after school hours, when Ochoa walked into the computer lab and found Kevin in there alone, lost in work.

Valedictorian Kevin Qualls gives his speech. (Photo for the Daily Breeze by Axel Koester)
Valedictorian Kevin Qualls gives his speech. (Photo for the Daily Breeze by Axel Koester)

Normally, Ochoa would kindly ask such a straggler to leave — in fact the rules require it. But Ochoa, who is commonly chatty with students, struck up a conversation. He learned that Kevin hung around the school or in the nearby El Segundo Public Library every night until 7 or 7:30 p.m., because that was the earliest his mother could get to school to pick him up after working all day in Century City.

“I thought to myself: If I kick him out, where is he going to go?” Ochoa said. “I figured, it’s not going to hurt anyone for him to stay here for an hour.”

Over the course of the year, Ochoa and Kevin got to know each other better. Sometimes, in the evening, Kevin would walk back to the school from the library — perhaps to retrieve a book he’d forgotten, or perhaps just to shoot the breeze. Ochoa would open the locked door.

“He would always ask about my kids,” said the 32-year-old Ochoa, who these days lives in Lawndale with his wife and two young children. “You never see a kid ask you about your family, about your kids.”

When Kevin worked the snack shack at Friday night football games, Ochoa and the other custodians would joke around with him.

When Kevin learned he was a finalist for the prestigious Gates Millennium scholarship — a jackpot award funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that foots the entire bill for the tuition, room and board of the lucky winners — Ochoa was one of the first people Kevin told.

From the beginning, the odds haven’t been in Kevin’s favor.

Half-black, half-Samoan, Kevin is a resident of Leimert Park, a south Los Angeles community located within the attendance boundaries of Crenshaw High School, where test scores are abysmal and the dropout rate astronomical.

In 2006, Kevin — an only child — saw his small family become smaller. That was the year his father, who’d long battled depression, was committed to a board-and-care facility for the mentally ill in Carson.

From that point on, his immediate family has consisted of two members — Kevin and his mom, Alofa Qualls. Every day, she drove him to school in El Segundo from Leimert Park, then traveled all the way up to Century City, where she works in the accounts-receivable department of an insurance company.The family actually lived in El Segundo in the distant past. But they moved out when Kevin was in kindergarten because they couldn’t afford it. Ever since, his mother had enrolled him in El Segundo’s public schools as a permit student.

Kevin was in middle school, he said, when the sacrifices made by his mother really hit him.

“I thought, if my mom is pouring so much sweat and hustle to take me here, I might as well make the most of it,” he said.

Alofa said her son has been undeterred by the roadblocks. “He’s not using any of those excuses to use it as a cop-out,” she said. “He rose from all that.”

At El Segundo High, where student test scores are exceptional, Kevin did more than hold his own. In addition to graduating near the top of his class, he won the contest among students for giving the valedictory address, which he delivered on commencement day June 13.

He was recognized by the El Segundo Masonic Lodge earlier this month as El Segundo High’s Student of the Year.

“I had the pleasure of teaching Kevin in AP physics this year,” said teacher Steven Eno. “Kevin is the most respectful and hardest working student that I have ever worked with. … Kevin made a habit of coming into class early and leaving class late to get as much time working with physics as possible.”

Most impressively, Kevin was a recipient of that Gates Millennium scholarship, which will cover the entire $62,000-a-year bill for him to attend and live on the campus at USC, where this fall he plans to begin studying mechanical engineering.

Shortly after he learned the good news, he sought out Ochoa.

“He was sweeping one of the science rooms, and I came up to him,” Kevin said. “We just looked at each other and he’s like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I got it.’ ”

Ochoa threw the broom down and gave Kevin a hug.

Any student who receives so many accolades in a year has also by now doled out public thank yous. During these moments, Kevin is quick to credit his parents — and Ochoa.

Ochoa — who in addition to his full-time job as a custodian works 20 or so hours a week at a print shop in El Segundo — is a little hesitant to take any credit for Kevin’s success.

“I don’t know what I did — he did all the work,” he said.

But Kevin assures that Ochoa was a big help.

“He was just the friend you could count on at the end of the day,” he said.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English

Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English

Nov. 24, 2012

Julian Ruiz of Torrance has been classified as an English learner even though he doesn t speak Spanish, or any other language besides English. His mother, Millie Ruiz, has unsuccessfully been trying to get him redesignated as fluent in English. (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)
Julian Ruiz of Torrance has been classified as an English learner even though he doesn t speak Spanish, or any other language besides English. His mother, Millie Ruiz, has unsuccessfully been trying to get him redesignated as fluent in English. (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)

Julian Ruiz is an English speaker who doesn’t know a word of Spanish or any other foreign language.

Yet when the 7-year-old entered kindergarten in Torrance three years ago, he was classified as an English learner – a student not fluent in English.

This shunted him into a category that his mother, Millie Ruiz, says he shouldn’t be in, and triggered a dispute with the school’s administration.

Ruiz says her son is trapped in the school district’s English Language Development program, giving him a label he doesn’t deserve.

“There comes a point where we need to introduce some common sense into the whole scheme of things,” Ruiz said.

Related story: California’s English language learners getting stuck in schools’ remedial programs

In California, about 23 percent of K-12 students are English learners. Some believe the number is too high.

A 2011 UC Berkeley study concluded that California districts are misidentifying large numbers of kindergarten students as English learners, in part because the test that determines whether they deserve the label is too difficult.

The result: Scarce resources earmarked for the purpose of helping nonfluent students are being spent inefficiently.

“There is that unfortunate opportunity for these kids to be identified as English-language learners and be locked into a program that’s not appropriate for them. I guess the criteria needs to be changed,” said Gil Navarro, a member of the San Bernardino County school board.

Some English-learner advocates see it differently.

Dan Fichtner, president of a nonprofit support group for teachers of English learners, said it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“We believe that it is better to err on the side of being conservative than to make a mistake and lose those first formative years,” Fichtner said.

As for Julian – a second-grader because he was held back in kindergarten – he must keep the designation until at least third grade, like all students in the program.

In California, it all begins with a language survey, filled out by every parent sending a child to kindergarten at a public school. It includes four questions:

* What language did the student use when first learning to speak?

* What language does the student use most frequently at home?

* What language does the parent speak when talking with the student?

* What language is most often spoken by adults in the home?

Ruiz answered the first three questions with “English.” But her fourth answer – “English/Spanish” – triggered the language test requirement.

Like about 90 percent of state kindergartners who take the test, Julian failed to score high enough to avoid the English learner label.

Jose Collazo, 22, of Pomona came to the United States with his family when he was little more than a year old. He remained in ESL classes throughout elementary and high school in Pomona Unified.

Collazo took the English-fluency exam four times, and although he was under the impression he had passed, he was never taken out of the ESL program.

That became a problem in high school, he said.

“I didn’t understand why my other friends were taking college prep and I didn’t,” Collazo said.

After speaking to a guidance counselor, he was able to take college preparation classes, but was still required to take ESL courses.As a result, Collazo said, he was unable to take some of the college preparation classes he needed.

In the summer of 2011, Ruiz decided – after two years in the program – she didn’t want to participate any longer. She refused to take time off work to bring her son to the district office to take his mandatory annual California English Language Development Test.

The school sent her a letter that Ruiz took as a threat. It said, in all caps: “Please note that your child will not be put on a class list in September if he/she does not complete this testing process prior to school starting in the fall.”

Ruiz did not have him tested that summer. That fall, the school pulled Julian out of class to take the assessment.

The results came back a few months later: “No change for this school year.”

Staff writers Rebecca Kimitch and Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Why do foreign-born ESL students become fluent more quickly than native-born English learners?

Why do foreign-born ESL students become fluent more quickly than native-born English learners?

Feb. 9, 2013


Actually, she knew one phrase — “thank you” — as well as the 26 letters of the alphabet. But other than that, the Arabic speaker was surrounded by thousands of students with whom she couldn’t communicate.

“It’s like you’re just in your own world,” she said of those first few months. “You cannot understand anything.”

Late last month, the high school senior celebrated a milestone: She accepted a certificate showing that she has officially met the requirements to exit the school’s program for students who are still learning English. Put simply, she is now considered fluent.

Meanwhile, Stephanie, another senior at San Pedro High, remains stuck in the school’s remedial programs for English learners, even though she was born in the United States, and has been labeled an English learner since kindergarten. (The Daily Breeze is withholding her last name of the Spanish speaker at the request of her teacher.)

Gabriel Luna of Mexico, left, Cristian Garcia of Columbia, Eevan Nooh of Iraq, Leonardo Perez of Mexico and Yingjun Xie of China are among those receiving their certificates of completion in the ESL program at San Pedro High during a Jan. 30, 2013 ceremony. (LANG Staff Photo by Sean Hiller)
Gabriel Luna of Mexico, left, Cristian Garcia of Columbia, Eevan Nooh of Iraq, Leonardo Perez of Mexico and Yingjun Xie of China are among those receiving their certificates of completion in the ESL program at San Pedro High during a Jan. 30, 2013 ceremony. (LANG Staff Photo by Sean Hiller)

The difference between Eevan and Stephanie underscores a little-known paradox that has long been at play at San Pedro High and likely beyond: Foreign-born students who come to America as teenagers knowing nary a word of English consistently test out of the English-learner program before high school students who have been stuck in the program since kindergarten. In fact, the comparison isn’t even close.

In the last three years at San Pedro High, a full 100 percent of the foreign-born English learners — about 10 pupils a year — have exited the program before graduation, compared to just 15 percent of their U.S.-born peers, said Laura Rodriguez, the school’s English Language Development coordinator.

Although broader statistics on the distinction between native- and foreign-born English-learners are scarce – neither the California Department of Education nor the Los Angeles Unified School District keep such tallies – the issue is worth examining.

The phenomenon at San Pedro High jibes with a nationwide study released this fall by John Hopkins University concluding that immigrant children tend to academically outperform their second- and third-generation native-born peers.

The trend was on display on Jan. 30, during a little-after-school ceremony at San Pedro High for students who have met all the requirements for being redesignated as fluent. Eevan was among 11 students so awarded. Eight of them were like her in that they had recently emigrated from other countries. Amazingly, this crew represented as many countries as students: El Salvador, Colombia, Tanzania, China, Peru, Ukrania, Iran and, of course, Iraq. Just three of the students were born in the United States.

The eight students getting redesignated were among 35 foreign-born English-learners at the school. The three U.S.– born students — known in education parlance as “long-term English learners” — came from a pool of 136. Sixteen of those U.S.-born students are seniors and in acute danger of not achieving fluency before graduation.

Karla Glover is the teacher of the foreign-born students, whose program is known as English as a Second Language.

“To see my students reclassify when they are in ESL when there is 136 that cannot do it in 9 to 12 years … it’s a lot of honor for me,” she said at the ceremony.

Comparing the success rate of foreign-born English-learners with their U.S.-born peers may offer insight into how to tackle one of the state’s most pressing educational problems. Making up nearly a quarter of all of California’s K-12 students, English learners have the worst high school dropout rate of any demographic group in the state.

Jill Aguilar, an associate professor of education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, believes the paradox demonstrates an oft-overlooked reality: Second-generation U.S. students whose parents speak another language at home often fail to gain a mastery of their supposed native tongue.

That is, many students who enter kindergarten speaking primarily, say, Spanish never really learn to read in Spanish, or even attain oral proficiency. This means they’re trying to learn a new language even as they are learning how to read.

“It delays their progress in Spanish and it delays their progress in English at the same time,” she said. “It ends up almost like a created learning disability.”

By comparison, students who arrive to the United States from other countries as a teenagers have often mastered their own native language.

“All they are doing is replacing words in their own language with English – it’s a vocabulary problem, really,” she said.

Aguilar believes bi-lingual education is the answer; she calls the 1998 decision by California voters to eliminate it a tragedy.

Rodriguez — the ELD coordinator at San Pedro High — disagrees. She believes the crux of the problem has more to do with motivation.

“The foreign-born students are more motivated because they are here for a better life,” she said. “Whereas the ones who have been here don’t see that. They feel more entitled.”

Eevan Noah certainly had good reason to appreciate her lot in life when she arrived at San Pedro High with her two siblings. Their Christian family was driven out of Iraq by Islamic militants irate that their father worked as a truck driver delivering goods to U.S. military forces, said Eevan’s older sister, Evett, who attended the Jan. 30 event to snap a few pictures of her sister.

“They gave us a paper saying you betrayed the country, and if you don’t get out of this country, we’re going to kill all of your kids,” Evett said. “The next day we got out of the country.”

Like Eevan, Evett went through the school’s ESL program, as did their brother, Andro. All three siblings are or were honor students at San Pedro High.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

‘Mean girls’ dropped: Cheer coaches fired for molding snobby high school squad

‘Mean girls’ dropped: Cheer coaches fired for molding snobby high school squad


El Segundo High School has fired its two longtime cheer coaches after members of the team and parents complained that they contributed to a “Mean Girls” culture by playing favorites, issuing threats and ostracizing certain girls, among other things.

Last week’s controversial firings of the two coaches, Marney Hagen and Nicole Martin, came on the heels of an independent investigation conducted by an attorney from out of town. The Daily Breeze this week obtained a copy of a three-page report, written by El Segundo High interim principal Ali Rabiei, based on that investigation.

“Each complainant generally alleges that District employees have each engaged in harassing, bullying and intimidating behavior director toward certain student team members; and have witnessed and condoned inappropriate and harassing behavior by ‘favored’ student Cheer Team members toward other student Cheer Team members,” Rabiei wrote. “We discovered sufficient evidence to substantiate the allegations.”

In addition to the firing of the part-time coaches, the school has discontinued its competitive cheer team, which in theory is a kind of all-star crew, though parents say there were no tryouts for the team. Meanwhile, the regular cheer squad — which performs the traditional cheerleading routines for football and basketball games — will carry on, but with new coaches.

The firings, which happened Dec. 10, has divided the cheer community, with many parents and team members rallying to support the coaches.

“Most of the girls on the team want to keep the coaches — that should tell you something right there,” said Mark Reppucci, the father of a team member. “I know (the coaches) personally and I like them both, but I don’t know them as teachers or coaches.”

Parents on the other side say the bullying has been an issue for years.

“The coaches had an attitude of still being teenagers themselves,” said one parent, who declined to share her name for fear of retaliation.

“It’s ‘Mean Girls’ behavior that is promoted not just by the girls and the coaches, but also some of the parents of the ones in the in-crowd,” she added, referring to the comedy film from 2004 about teen cliques.

These parents noted that many students and cheer-squad members who support the coaches have been taking their frustrations out on a single girl via Facebook and Twitter.

“There was a firestorm” on social media, said another parent, who also requested anonymity. “One girl has been targeted as the scapegoat. But it’s not just one girl — it’s the whole culture of the team.”

The three-page report is short on specifics, likely because it is a summary version of a more detailed and confidential document from the investigation, which was based on 17 witness interviews and other pieces of evidence, collected over a period of two months this fall.

But the parents shared what they believed to be a few egregious anecdotes.

A few weeks ago, the team was on the bus for an away football game. With them was a mother who was not authorized to be on the bus. Sometime during the game, somebody filed a complaint about the matter to school district administrators, who quickly intervened, informing the parent that she couldn’t ride on the bus on the way home.

Just before the bus started back for El Segundo, a girl on the bus reportedly cussed out another girl in a threatening manner, believing she was the one who made the complaint.

The coach, the parent said, didn’t intervene.

“She never came to the girl who was threatened and said, ‘Are you OK?’

Another parent shared a story about a girl who complained to the coaches about being bullied by other teammates. That girl was cut from the team, the parent said.

“They allowed the girls to scream at each other,” she said. “The coaches would sit there and not say anything. ‘Fight it out,’ they’d say.”

The parents said the coaches discouraged parents from getting involved. They also said the coaches friended the students on Facebook.

The regular cheer squad consists of two teams, the varsity and junior varsity. Combined, it includes 47 girls. About 10 girls who tried out to participate didn’t make the cut, parents said. The competition team, which had been in existence for about four years, included about 20 members.

It does appear that the cheer team has experienced some success. The web page of El Segundo High School congratulates the team for first-place finishes at a U.S.A. Regional competition.

The Daily Breeze reached out to both coaches via Facebook, but neither responded to the messages. Hagen had been a coach for eight years; Martin had been one for five. Both women are in their forties, according to parents.

Geoff Yantz, the superintendent of the El Segundo Unified School District, declined to comment about the matter, citing personnel confidentiality laws.

The report concludes, “it is apparent that the culture of the cheer program is hostile toward Cheer Team members deemed as ‘non-favored.’ The employees, whether intentionally or unintentionally, have created, or allowed to be created, an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and general unfairness.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Lennox teacher lauded for starting reading club for boys

Lennox teacher lauded for starting reading club for boys

Diego's Dudes lunchtime reading club at Felton Elementary School in Lennox. Fourth grade teacher Alex Carrera brings her Chihuahua Diego to class as a mascot to help boys improve reading skills. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
Diego’s Dudes lunchtime reading club at Felton Elementary School in Lennox. Fourth grade teacher Alex Carrera brings her Chihuahua Diego to class as a mascot to help boys improve reading skills. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

Not long ago, Alex Carrera was killing time at a yard sale when she spied a book that caught her attention: “The Trouble With Boys. ”

The fourth-grade teacher at Felton Elementary School in Lennox fished a dollar out of her purse and made the purchase.

The message of the book by Peg Tyre jibed with Carrera’s classroom experience: Girls are outperforming boys in academics, and the gap is growing.

Inspired, Carrera came up with the idea for “Diego’s Dudes,” a reading club that involves her, a handful of boys who struggle with reading and Diego, the mascot of the club and the calmest of Carrera’s three Chihuahuas.

This fall, the small group began meeting three days a week, sitting on the floor of the empty classroom while the rest of the boys and girls romp outside during recess. For 15 minutes, the four boys read out loud passages from books of their own choosing while Carrera moderates. (Then they join their classmates for the second half of recess.) As for Diego, well, he tends to just lay on the floor and blink.

“He’s a good listener, and he doesn’t judge,” Carrera said. “He just wants to hear a good story. ”

The voluntary club is merely a drop of medicine in an ocean of need, but it sure made an impression on the SoCal Honda Dealers Association. Recently, the organization selected Carrera among five teachers in Southern California to be honored for Teachers Appreciation Week.

Carrera was nominated for the award by her principal, Scott Wilcox.

“It’s boys, and it’s Hispanic boys and minority boys, who are dropping out of high school,” he said. “You stop kids from dropping out of high school by intervening with something out of the box like this in the early grades. ”

Felton Elementary serves a high-risk population. Nearly 95 percent of the students are Latino; about 70 percent of the students are native Spanish speakers who are still learning English.

One of them is Edgar Vera, a member of the club. At the beginning of the year, Edgar not only felt shy about reading, but he also refused to speak English. Now he’s an eager participant during reading time.

“This club made me think that reading is fun for me,” he told a reporter during a visit. “I learned words and now I like a lot of reading. ”

Another student in the club, Charles Allen, said the group has helped with his comprehension of certain words, like “embarrassed. ”

“I used to say ’embraced,’ ” he said.

The gender gap in reading is a phenomenon that transcends ethnicity. A 2010 study by the Center on Education Policy found that boys lag behind girls in reading in all 50 states.

Males also are increasingly outnumbered by females on college campuses. It is widely reported that women in the United States now earn 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of all master’s degrees and more than half of all doctoral degrees.

Taking a page out of “The Trouble With Boys,” Carrera decided that the key to getting boys excited about reading – especially those who are “reluctant readers” – is to let them choose the materials.

With this in mind, Carrera was careful to recruit one of her most rambunctious boys, Miguel Tuznoh, to select the books for the group.

“He’s had trouble in the past with behavior,” she said. “He’s considered a leader. I picked up on that, and so rather than using his leadership skills in a negative way, I decided, ‘OK this is going to be my ringleader.’ ”

Miguel shared his criteria for book selection: anything “Gooey, disgusting, worms, sports … ”

“Boy stuff,” Carrera chimed in.

The reading list thus includes books like “How to Eat Fried Worms,” “Tales from the Crypt: Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid” and “The ‘Air’ Apparent: Kobe.”

The group is currently reading a book by Ellen Potter called “Slob,” about a fat kid who is a genius inventor but gets picked on. Carrera suggested that because she is female, she might have been subconsciously out of touch with the kind of selections more appealing to the male gender.

“They want to read biographies, irreverent humor, comic books,” she said. “Girls want to read about superstars. Right now Taylor Swift is big in my class. ”


The boys not only selected the books, but they also came up with the three rules of Diego’s Dudes.

“The only thing I say is ‘Give me three rules that have to do with character,’ ” Carrera said. And so they did.

Rule No. 1: Treat the books and mascot with care.

Rule No. 2: Come to the club meetings on time.

Rule No. 3: Respect our friends when they’re reading out loud.

“Mind you, they came up with that,” Carrera said. “We can’t laugh, we can’t make fun. And you see, they are helping each other out. ”

Next year, Carrera wants to add an element to the program in which male role models come to the class to read out loud to the boys.

“A lot of boys who struggle with reading don’t really have a male role model who they see reading,” she said. “I want to include male role models to come in and say, ‘This is my favorite book. Check it out.’ “

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

California’s English language learners getting stuck in schools’ remedial programs

California’s English language learners getting stuck in schools’ remedial programs

Melanie Perez wishes she could have played the saxophone. Octavio Reyes would have liked to take a computer science class.

Both students at San Pedro High School say they can’t sign up for these electives because, at some point in their school careers, they were stuck having to take remedial classes for English learners – even though both speak English fluently and have performed reasonably well on English tests.

“I actually feel retarded when (the teacher) says, `What is this (word)?’ and it’s a carrot,” Octavio said. “It’s pointless. I already know it, and I don’t think it helps me.”

Their complaints highlight a wider problem that, although little known, could be among the state’s most pressing educational challenges: Students stuck for years in the state’s remedial programs for English learners are often denied the opportunity to take enriching electives or the more rigorous courses required for getting into college.

Related story: Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English

It’s a problem that has been attracting more attention of late, leading to a raft of reforms that some say could make California a leader in the field – which would be fitting, considering a third of the nation’s English learners attend California public schools.

But as is, the state is failing many of these students.

Low odds for success

Numbering 1.4 million, English learners make up nearly a quarter of all K-12 students in the state – and nearly 40 percent of all California’s kindergartners. One in four quits school – the worst dropout rate of any demographic group in California. Only 60 percent graduate high school within four years.

Several pieces of legislation addressing this mammoth bloc of at-risk students were signed in late September by Gov. Jerry Brown. All take effect Jan. 1.

One, authored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell, seeks to prevent English learners from languishing in the system for years by compelling the state Department of Education to reveal the number of “long-term English learners” at each school district.

Another, by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, will force the state to come up with more consistent guidelines for deeming kids fluent. The implication here is that many students are unnecessarily stuck in remedial classes when their command of the English language is sufficient.

A third bill, also by Padilla, takes school districts to task for banking state money earmarked for getting these students on track.

School officials chafe at some of these characterizations, in particular that last one, especially at a time when schools are suffering from historic shortages of state funding.

Meanwhile, advocates of English learners say large numbers of them – for whatever reason – get stuck in the system, and that, at some point, their very status as English learners seems to inhibit their chances for success.

“If kids haven’t been reclassified (as fluent) by fifth grade, they have pretty much been tracked, and are not going to be able to go to college,” said Oscar Cruz, the head of Families in Schools, a nonprofit advocate for parents of low-income and minority families. “They’re on a path where they’re just taking remedial classes.”

Lara’s AB 2193 would create a consistent definition for long-term English learners and force school districts to not only keep track of such students, but also students at risk of earning the distinction.

Studies show that some 60 percent of English learners in grades 6-12 are considered long term, meaning they’ve carried the label for at least six years.

Padilla’s SB 1108 – co-authored by Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton – aims to create a more consistent set of requirements for deeming students academically fluent. As is, the state provides minimum guidelines, but allows school districts to tack on additional stipulations, arguably creating more barriers to reclassification.

“The criteria are just all over the map,” Padilla said, adding that he would prefer to see districts err on the side of removing the label.

Padilla’s other bill, SB 754, is a transparency measure that seeks to pressure individual school districts out of the practice of stashing the extra money they receive to provide services for English learners. Specifically, it would compel them to prominently post online their budgets and carryovers in these accounts, as well as explain why the money hasn’t been spent.

School districts generally receive $300 to $500 a year in state dollars for every English learner they designate, but they don’t spend it all. (This amount doesn’t include the additional funds they receive from the federal government.)

In 2010-11, the state gave California’s school districts a total of $915 million for helping English learners and low-income students. Known as the “Economic Impact Aid” fund, it lumps the two allocations together. By year’s end, the school districts’ combined ending balance from this fund amounted to $382 million – or 42 percent of the annual apportionment.

The 2011 carryover for LAUSD alone was $61.5 million, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

That money, Padilla said, “should be spent; it should not be hoarded.”

Octavio and Melanie

Octavio is a good example of a student who could be fluent by state standards, but isn’t due to an unique additional local requirement.

A senior at San Pedro High, Octavio still bears the “English learner” label even though he cleared the state-set hurdles for fluency. These include passage of an exam taken annually by English learners until they pass, and demonstrating a basic level of proficiency on standardized tests.

But the Los Angeles Unified School District also has another requirement for shedding the label: Students must maintain at least a C average in their English classes. That has been Octavio’s hang-up.

“It was mostly because I didn’t try,” said Octavio, who has been an English learner since emigrating from Mexico at age 10. “I would get bored.”

Other districts have their own tack-on requirements. The K-8 Hawthorne School District requires its English learners to pass a written exam. In Torrance, English learners must score higher on standardized English tests than what the state requires.

As for Melanie, who is a freshman at San Pedro High, she has been successfully reclassified as fluent but says the year and a half spent taking remedial English classes at Dana Middle School in San Pedro denied her the ability to take desired electives, such as band. While she was born in the United States, many other students were immigrants.

“There were times that I didn’t care to do my work,” she said. “I was like, `Why am I in this class if I know English?”‘

New master plan

Even as several pieces of English-learner legislation have become law statewide, LAUSD has its own new initiative.

The nation’s second-largest school system has more English learners than any other district – nearly 31 percent of its 650,000 students. Officials estimate that nearly 40 percent of those are considered long term, unable to attain proficiency after five years in a program.

LAUSD’s strategy for teaching English to these students is detailed in its 150-page master plan, which was overhauled last year after a federal civil rights investigation found that English learners weren’t getting the same quality education as other students in the district.

Under the new plan, the district is more closely monitoring the progress of its English learners, with tutoring and other forms of intervention available to those struggling with either language or academic lessons.

“The goal is to increase proficiency in elementary grades, before students get to middle and high school and get mired in the long-term category,” said Hilda Maldonado, director of LAUSD’s Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department.

“We’re using more of the district’s data system to be able to monitor the progress and achievement of our students.”

The district also wants to remove the roadblocks impeding students who can’t test out of the English-learner programs despite their obvious fluency. Beginning next year, Maldonado said, teachers will be assessing middle and high school students with the goal of getting students reclassified even if they can’t hit the academic benchmarks on report cards.

The disconnect

Statewide, there is an apparent disconnect between the number of English learners who demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests and the number of students who matriculate out of the English learner program.

In 2010-11, nearly 40 percent of California’s English learners made the grade in English on standardized tests, but only 11 percent were reclassified as fluent, according to the California Department of Education.

A South Bay district with a lower-than-average reclassification rate is the K-8 Hawthorne School District. Here, just 8 percent of English learners were deemed fluent in 2010-11, even though nearly 50 percent scored proficient or better on standardized English tests.

Hawthorne schools Superintendent Helen Morgan – whose schools are generally strong performers given their high rates of low-income families – makes no apologies for setting the bar high for reclassification.

“In our instance, the writing component is more of a hurdle, but we want to make sure they are good writers before we drop all the support,” she said.

Torrance schools

Torrance Unified seems to do a better-than-average job of getting students out of the program in a timely fashion.

For instance, in 2010-11, the latest data available, while just 11 percent of English learners in California were reclassified as fluent, in Torrance the figure was 14.4 percent.

Kati Krumpe, the district’s director of state and federal programs, says reclassified students in Torrance tend to outperform many of their peers who were never in the English learner program.

“I think that shows that the program is working,” she said.

As for the 39-year-old Padilla, he himself was an English learner as an elementary school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District. That was before California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, thereby ending mandatory bilingual education.

“My textbooks in first grade were 100 percent in Spanish,” he said.

He is the rare example of an English learner who thrived, eventually earning a mechanical engineering degree from MIT.

Taking a step back, Padilla says the crux of the problem is a lack of urgency on this topic.

“English learners are a segment of the population that continues to grow,” he said. “If the trend is on the way up, and the educational attainment level of English learners continues to stagnate, I think we have a perfect storm for a crisis. And many would say the crisis is already here.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

State’s Dream Act doesn’t help students near graduation

State’s Dream Act doesn’t help students near graduation

By Rob Kuznia Staff Writer
Posted: 10/13/2011 07:43:33 PM PDT
Updated: 10/13/2011 07:55:08 PM PDT

From coast to coast, the passage of the California Dream Act has prompted loud cheers from supporters and bitter outrage from critics.

But for Vilma Nerio, a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson – and an undocumented student – last weekend’s signing by Gov. Jerry Brown felt almost inconsequential.

Nerio’s problems pertain more to the near future: though she is within striking distance of earning her teaching degree, she will have no way to land a job once she graduates.

“There are no undocumented teachers out there,” she said.

For Nerio, the more important Dream Act is the federal version, which would provide permanent residency to qualified undocumented students. In December, it came before the U.S. Senate, and fell five votes short of being considered for final passage.

Nerio is far from alone. In August, a study by the American Sociological Review found that undocumented students with college degrees often must settle for the same low-wage jobs that their parents perform. In fact, of the 31 graduates of four-year universities interviewed, none was working in their chosen professions.

“I know many who have been out three, four, five, six years and there is really nothing for them,” said Roberto Gonzales, author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

“They speak English much more fluently than their parents and have an education level that far surpasses their parents’, but find themselves stuck in the same narrowly circumscribed set of options.”

He added that the phenomenon is relatively new, because the first generation of college-educated undocumented students is only beginning to graduate en masse.

Titled “Learning to be Illegal,” the study found that attending college has been a way for many undocumented students to delay the stress of living in a manner that feels impermissible.

Nerio, a Gardena resident, didn’t know she was an illegal immigrant until she was 17.

Her friends were getting their driver’s licenses and she told her mother she’d like to do the same. That’s when her mom dropped the bomb: Nerio was shuttled over the border from her native El Salvador when she was 1.

“It was a big shock to me,” she said. “I thought I was just like everyone else. I was a typical teenager, hanging with friends, going to school, going to football games.”

Nerio said the news had a profound effect on some of her friendships.

“About half of them were fine, but the other half took it as `You broke the law, go back,”‘ she said. “We’d had sleepovers together.”

Now 25, Nerio said she may have to return to El Salvador for up to a year to qualify to obtain her visa.

“The problem with me is I don’t have any family back there,” she said. “I’ve been in California for 24 years, I consider this my home. Going back to a place I’ve never been to is quite scary.”

Nerio, who has maintained a 3.2 GPA at CSU Dominguez Hills, said doesn’t blame her mother for bringing her over, or for waiting so long to tell her.

“Her main reason to bring me here was to give me a better life,” she said. “She only went to fifth grade and then stopped. After fifth grade you had to pay for your school. Our family is not wealthy, so they said, `Well, this is it for you.’ She didn’t want that for me.”

Santa Barbara News Press Shifting Paradigms

Rich Kid, Poor Kid – and Few in Between

Note: To read the sidebar on the students in the photos, go to Class Divide: A Tale of 4 Families

Not long ago, when a Santa Barbara Junior High student missed the bus taking the water polo team to Los Angeles, he simply hopped on the family’s private jet and made the game in time. Another’s family is similarly wealthy – they’re looking at selling their home to Beanie Babies billionaire Ty Warner.

Conversely, a boy at the school lives in a three-bedroom apartment with his mother, five brothers, a couple who sleep in the living room and two men who sublease a bedroom. Last year, another student was among 22 relatives living in the same two-bedroom house.

Santa Barbara Junior High, at 721 E. Cota St., is a campus of contrasts like few others. And, like the city in which it’s located, the school appears to be becoming more so. With its plethora of both wealthy and poor students – and relatively few students in between – the school’s demographics mirror those of the South Coast, which experts say is losing its middle class.

Shane is an aspiring golfer who lives in Montecito and has a swimming pool, chipping green and a sand trap in his backyard.
Shane is an aspiring golfer who lives in Montecito and has a swimming pool, chipping green and a sand trap in his backyard.

Built in 1932, the campus is an architectural gem: red-tile roofing, soft-ivory facade, tiled walls and cherub-adorned bell tower. Equally striking is its demographic makeup. Located near Milpas Street, the school draws students from two worlds that, in some cases, are mere blocks apart.

About 200 of some 930 students hail from the moneyed hills of Montecito; most could afford their pick of local private schools.

David is among just a handful of the school’s students who are homeless. He and his father, Lee Haralson, share a tarp-covered RV in a parking lot at Dwight Murphy Field.
David is among just a handful of the school’s students who are homeless. He and his father, Lee Haralson, share a tarp-covered RV in a parking lot at Dwight Murphy Field.

Another 400 are officially poor, meaning they receive subsidized lunches. Most of them live just down the hill, on or around Milpas Street, home to Latino families, many of whom are housekeepers, busboys, gardeners and construction workers.

This leaves less than half in the so-called middle. In Santa Barbara, such kids live in unremarkable million-dollar homes, perhaps in the San Roque neighborhood, or in regular market-rate apartments, perhaps downtown.

Evidence suggests that the unusually large socioeconomic gap at Santa Barbara Junior High – which has long been, and still is, about two-thirds Latino and one-third white – is slowly growing.

A diverse student population can be a boon to a school, adding the benefit of high scores, not to mention eye-popping monetary donations. The generosity of parents at Santa Barbara Junior High is unparalleled: In 2001, led by former “ER” television star Anthony Edwards – who wasn’t a parent but a former student – volunteers raised most of the $3.6 million needed for a majestic renovation of the school’s theater.

Erika's family has lived all over the world: New York, Colorado, Sweden, Denmark.Through their professions and avocations, her parents have exposed her to a healthy mix of arts, sciences, athletics and languages.
Erika’s family has lived all over the world: New York, Colorado, Sweden, Denmark.Through their professions and avocations, her parents have exposed her to a healthy mix of arts, sciences, athletics and languages.

But the combination of high wealth and high poverty can lead to stark disparities.

Take test scores.

Stacked against their peers at each of California’s 1,240 middle schools, Santa Barbara Junior High’s white students last year scored in the top 3 percent, or 24th place, according to a report compiled by Santa Barbara school board member Bob Noel. (Schools do not keep track of affluent students.)

But only 16 percent of the school’s poor students, and 11 percent of English learners, demonstrated proficiency – another word for grade-level work – in math. The federal government requires it be more than 25 percent, and has sanctioned the entire school under the No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to have all of the nation’s students passing standardized tests in math and English by 2014.

A closer look at Mr. Noel’s study revealed that, statewide, just one other middle school exhibited such disparities. Of the 23 middle schools across California whose white students scored higher in math and English than Santa Barbara Junior High’s, just one of them – King Middle School in Berkeley – also faces penalties under the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Eduardo, a seventh-grader, has lived his entire life in a subsidized housing unit on Soledad Street. But his days at the apartment could be numbered: His older brother, a senior at Santa Barbara High, was recently involved in a gang brawl and was sent to Los Prietos Boys Camp, his family said. Now, the Santa Barbara Housing Authority, which does not tolerate drug use or gang involvement among tenants, is deciding whether to evict the family. (See his story in "Tale of 4 Families" sidebar)
Eduardo, a seventh-grader, has lived his entire life in a subsidized housing unit on Soledad Street. But his days at the apartment could be numbered: His older brother, a senior at Santa Barbara High, was recently involved in a gang brawl and was sent to Los Prietos Boys Camp, his family said. Now, the Santa Barbara Housing Authority, which does not tolerate drug use or gang involvement among tenants, is deciding whether to evict the family.

At Santa Barbara Junior High, the socioeconomic disparities are also evident in the classroom: In many high-level classes the students are nearly all white, and in most regular-level courses, nearly all Latino.

Finally, they manifest themselves socially, with white and Latino students eating separately, for the most part, at lunch time.

But as this chasm widens, teachers and students alike are building innovative bridges. Teachers, in keeping with a trend in education that emphasizes helping those who are lagging, have launched a new math program for such students. And kids, with the help of some adults, have begun an organized effort to break through the social barriers keeping the students in separate groups.

For teachers, the clock is ticking.

When it comes to test scores, this is a pivotal year for the school, which is in its second year of federal sanctions. To avoid entering the third year – with stiffer penalties – this year the school started requiring every struggling student to take two math classes.

In the spring, students will take a barrage of tests. How they perform will dictate whether the school begins to climb out of No Child’s punitive quicksand, or sinks deeper into it.


By the numbers, the parents of Santa Barbara Junior High’s Montecito students are not only rich, but getting richer faster than others across the state. Meanwhile, the school’s poor students are growing more numerous.

In five years, the proportion of Montecito households earning at least $250,000 annually has jumped from 22 percent to 27 percent, according to the California Economic Forecast. Statewide, since 2000, it has crept up from 2 percent to nearly 3 percent.

On the other hand, the proportion of students getting free or discounted lunches has increased from 30 percent to 43 percent — now nearly twice as high as the district average. (Statewide, the number has held pretty steady in five years, at just under half.)

Yet in recent decades Santa Barbara Junior High has not experienced white flight, as have other local schools. Since 1990, the racial breakdown has remained relatively static: two-thirds Latino, one-third white. (The white population peaked three years ago at 40 percent, but is back to 31 percent.) In a sense, Santa Barbara Junior High is an inner-city school and suburban school wrapped into one.

In contrast, the Westside’s La Cumbre Junior High — another sanctioned school — has seen dramatic white flight. Since 1990, its proportion of white students has dwindled from 35 percent to 11 percent. (La Cumbre has launched a major effort to turn that around.)

Despite its success at retaining students, inside its walls Santa Barbara Junior High appears segregated.

White students make up just one-third of the school’s enrollment, but they constitute three-fourths of its gifted and talented program. Latino students make up two-thirds of the enrollment, but the vast majority are in general education classes, now known as “College Prep.”

Last year, Principal Susan Salcido and the leaders of two other local middle schools tried to blend programs — and their students. But the plan died when affluent parents expressed alarm. Now, and for the foreseeable future, it’s back to the status quo: four academic tracks — GATE, honors, college prep and remedial. As has long been the case, the first group is mostly white; the second is mixed. The third and fourth — college prep and remedial — are nearly entirely Latino. (Many students fall into more than one category.)

“The whole honors thing was an idea,” said Ms. Salcido of the plan to merge the honors and general ed tracks. “That idea can’t work, so, OK, can’t do.”


The gap between the haves and have-nots at Santa Barbara Junior High is not a topic many like discussing. Administrators at the district balked at providing an ethnic breakdown of all the academic tracks besides GATE, saying compiling the information would be too labor intensive.

But Ms. Salcido offered an estimate. The college-prep classes, she said, generally reflect the breakdown of the school — two-thirds Latino, a third white. The honors courses are the other way around. The remedial classes are virtually 100 percent nonwhite, she said.

Many of the Montecito parents say they send their children to Santa Barbara Junior High because it represents the real world. But most of the Montecito families contacted by the News-Press had students enrolled in the GATE courses, which accommodate students only in the top 20 percent bracket.

“It’s a school within a school,” said Montecito parent Barney Berglund, echoing the words of some others.

Such statements cause Ms. Salcido to bristle.

“I really want to make sure everyone knows that all our programs challenge students,” she said.

Although she wasn’t able to provide numbers, Ms. Salcido said not all students from Montecito are enrolled in GATE classes.

Built in 1932, Santa Barbara Junior High School is an architectural gem: red-tile roofing, soft-ivory facade, tiled walls and cherub-adorned bell tower. Equally striking is its demographic makeup. Located near Milpas Street, the school draws students from two worlds that, in some cases, are mere blocks apart.
Built in 1932, Santa Barbara Junior High School is an architectural gem: red-tile roofing, soft-ivory facade, tiled walls and cherub-adorned bell tower. Equally striking is its demographic makeup. Located near Milpas Street, the school draws students from two worlds that, in some cases, are mere blocks apart.

Sasha Paskal is one. The eighth-grader, whose father owns a business building sets in Hollywood — including for the movie “Elizabethtown” — takes both honors courses and college-prep classes.

In her honors courses, she can count on one hand the number of Latino students. In college prep, it’s the other way around: She’s in the minority.

“I was kind of upset when I wasn’t accepted in GATE,” she said.

“I felt left out, because so many of my friends were.”

An articulate, easygoing redhead who wears hip eyeglasses with translucent-pink plastic frames, Sasha aims to study fashion design in New York City after she graduates. Math isn’t her strong suit.

While in sixth grade at Montecito Union, she heard rumors that white kids in regular classes are taunted. Not so, she said.

Given her career interests, Sasha says that despite her initial disappointment, she believes everything turned out for the best.

“I’ll understand other people’s cultural experiences,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of people I wouldn’t have.”


Meanwhile, just because the school’s educators have backed off from changing the academic tracks doesn’t mean they’ve stopped refining their efforts to close the achievement gap. The two-math-classes-for-every-struggling-student approach is less controversial.

But even here there is a hitch: Having more back-to-the-basics courses leaves less room for electives, like band and foreign languages.

Eighth-grader Angie Solis was among the roughly 100 students who were assigned the extra math class. Its appearance on her class schedule was an unwelcome surprise.

“I was like, ‘What?’ ” she said. “It meant no elective. . . . I wanted to take Spanish or journalism.”

Now, though, she says she’s glad it happened. Her grades have gone from B’s to A’s. Another student said her grades have improved from D’s to a B-minus.

Math co-chair Marc Fidel said such students still can take electives by going to school for an optional extra period.

“If they really want it, it’s there,” he said.

Mr. Fidel is excited — and nervous — about the program he and his colleagues devised.

“I don’t want to just plug the dam,” he said. “I want this to work.”

The “extra” class is really a lab at which teachers, with full knowledge of what kids will learn on any given day in the regular class, bolster students’ understanding of the day’s lesson.

The idea is to use re-teaching and pre-teaching to ward off the dazed sense of hopelessness that can befall a kid when, say, first setting eyes on a symbols-laden quadratic equation.

“You see that stuff and you sort of make a decision before you attempt it whether you’re going to get it or not,” he said.

Mr. Fidel acknowledges he has no data on how the dual-math program is working, but says he can sense the students’ increased confidence. For instance, some of the students who were slackers last year are eagerly raising their hands this year.

“Once a kid feels hopeless or helpless, it’s really difficult to get them to jump that hurdle,” he said. “As long as they’re willing, they’re hopeful.”

But the real test will come this spring, when all students take a barrage of proficiency exams. If too few make the mark, the school will experience more sanctions.

In its first two years of sanctions, Santa Barbara Junior High — one of four of the South Coast’s 42 public schools to be marked thus far — has had to send letters to all parents telling them they may send their children to another school. It also had to offer each of its poor families $900 worth of free private tutoring.

According to the way the law is written, the penalties steepen every year.

Third-year sanctions include: “Decrease management authority at school level.” Fourth-year penalties include “reopening the school as a charter,” “replacing all or most staff, including the principal” or the most likely: “Any other major restructuring.”

But the 32-year-old Ms. Salcido, who inherited the sanctions when she accepted the principal’s post in the fall of 2004-05, seems undaunted by the pressure.

Asked to describe the most difficult challenge of heading up such a polarized school, she said: “I don’t think of it that way. This is what we do — it’s wonderful that we have the diversity.”


Students say the gap between rich and poor plays out socially. At lunchtime, in general, white students tend to hang out in the quad — a grassy square of trees, tables and benches — while many Latino students gather behind the school, near the outdoor volleyball and basketball courts.

In November, the school launched an approach to breaking down social barriers between cliques, which at Santa Barbara Junior High tend to form along ethnic lines. Administrators have culled 38 student ambassadors — each a perceived leader in a group of friends — and trained them to mediate conflicts among students.

The program has inspired a few students to lead the way in mixing it up.

For instance, Montecito resident Andrew Adams, one of the ambassadors, and a couple of his friends one day joined a group of Latino kids on the basketball court.

“It’s really weird and wrong how separated we are based on if you’re white or Mexican,” he said. “It’s getting better.”

At first, it was awkward.

“We were like, ‘um, alright,’ ” said Irene Ricardo-Valle, an eighth-grader. “We weren’t used to it.”

The white kids, she said, were so rule-conscious, a style she termed “YMCA.”

“If you double-dribble, you have to do a free shot or something like that,” she said. But “it was cool.”

The ambassador program kicked off with an assembly, led by a trainer.

In addition to the usual jocks and theater students, the participants included the rich kids — perjoratively dubbed the Montecito Millionaires — and wannabe gangbangers. In one exercise, the trainer situated all the students side-by-side in a long line outside.

The trainer fired questions at the group. If the answer to any question was “yes,” students were to take a step forward. The questions started easy, but worked their way to the profound: “Have any of you had a relative die violently?”

After a pause, one student stepped forward. Then two. In all, to everyone’s shock, at least two-thirds of the students, most of them from lower-income families, took a step.

“My aunt was riding in a car in San Diego,” said Corena Herrera, an eighth-grader whose chipper demeanor belies some of the tragedies her family has endured.

“It was a nice car, so they thought she had money, but it was a rental. They shot her.”

“He got stabbed,” said Esly Dubon, of her cousin, Henry Sanchez, a former Santa Barbara High School football player who was murdered at a party five years ago. It was a gang-related killing.

For some of the Montecito students, the lesson was an eye-opener about the other sphere.

Other questions, though, underscored the kind of adolescent pain that is blind to class and race.

When the trainer asked how many students had been called a name, such as “slut” or “fag,” nearly all crossed the line.

Now, the 38 ambassadors meet regularly with mentor teachers to discuss conflicts on campus. No names are used, because the idea is to get advice on how to resolve problems, not to impose disciplinary measures.

For Irene, also one of the ambassadors, the program has given her the tools to deal with everyday conflicts between students.

Sometimes the confrontations have a racial edge.

One day, after school, she saw a white girl chiding a Latina, telling her, “Why do you think you’re all bad? You’re not a gangster.” The situation escalated, with the Latina rounding up some friends. The white girl started walking away, saying her ride had arrived. Irene, who is friends with both girls, tried to ease the tension, bidding a friendly “goodbye” to the white girl.

Irene said her Latina friend responded.

“She’s all, ‘Why are you saying bye to her?’ I said, ‘She’s my friend.’ ” Then, Irene said, she helped defuse her Latina friend’s anger. “I said, ‘Do you even consider yourself a gangster?’ ” The girl thought about it, Irene said. No, she didn’t.

“That happens almost every day,” Irene said. “Just little changes here and there. It makes a big difference.”


For all the talk of the gap between the rich and the poor, both academically and socially, there are encouraging exceptions. Like Jose Cruz.

He, too, has a relative who has died violently — an uncle in a shooting over drugs and money in Mexico. He wears gold chains and baggy pants, and his peach-fuzz mustache and ruddy complexion make him seem older than his 14 years.

But looks are deceiving.

Jose is enrolled in honors courses for English, math and history. His mother, a house cleaner, has a good relationship with his teachers. His stepfather is a mechanic who owns Automotive Clinic in Oxnard, much to the admiration of his son.

“I would like to do that,” he said.

But going against the grain can be difficult, especially in the middle-school environment. For Latino students especially, the pressure to be like their peers is demanding.

Last year, Olivia G. Rodriguez’s daughter, Andriana, was enrolled exclusively in GATE classes at Santa Barbara Junior High, but hated it.

“She said, ‘Mom, I’m the only Mexican kid in GATE,’ ” said Ms. Rodriguez at a recent meeting for parents of secondary students in GATE.

“I said, ‘That should be an honor.’ ”

Andriana didn’t see it that way. Her Latina friends teased her, and she felt intimidated by all of the “rich kids” surrounding her. Now, as a freshman at Santa Barbara High School, she doesn’t take a single GATE class. However, she is taking a high-level physics course.

“The teachers wanted to push her up, and here she’s trying to push back,” Ms. Rodriguez said, incredulous. At home, Ms. Rodriguez said, she could always tell whether the friend her daughter was talking to on the phone was white or Latina. When she talked like an adult, it was a white student. When she peppered her diction with the words “like” and “you know,” it was a Latina.

The situation was all the more vexing to Ms. Rodriguez because she struggled all her life to be recognized for her skills, “and here (Andriana) is, trying to cover it up.” Ms. Rodriguez’s struggle paid off: She’s now an attorney.

She hopes her daughter finds a similar path.

Santa Barbara News Press Shifting Paradigms

Christmas Unwrapped

Christmas Unwrapped: Not everyone can enjoy the day with family and friends

Traditionally, Christmas is known as a day of traveling, eating, unwinding and unwrapping. But not everyone in Santa Barbara is experiencing a traditional Christmas Day.

Today, as thousands indulge in the joys of tearing paper, laughing children, sentimental music and hot cider, others in Santa Barbara will march to the beat of a different drummer boy.

They will wait for emergency calls at a fire station, serve food at a swanky hotel in Montecito, counsel dangerous inmates in the Santa Barbara County Jail or lie dying in a hospice.

A SB County jail inmate holds the Christmas cards from wife and daughter. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS
A SB County jail inmate holds the Christmas cards from wife and daughter. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS

Some, like Scott and Bonnie Bosler of Visalia, would have celebrated in the conventional way were it not for a life-altering tragedy.

Their son, 17-year-old Brad Bosler, drowned in June while trying to save a friend. As a result, Brad’s parents and two sisters today will serve meals to the homeless at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission on East Yanonali Street.

“Our son was a big-hearted guy; he had a real giving heart, a real servant’s heart,” said Scott Bosler, whose son went to Mexico several times to build homes for the indigent. “We just weren’t ready to do what we’ve done traditionally during the Christmas season. . . . We wanted to do something he would have done.”

Brad was rafting in a canal near Porterville when a companion got caught in a whirlpool. Brad, a star athlete who hoped to become a firefighter, jumped in to save him.

“He wanted to be a hero,” Mr. Bosler said of his son’s professional aspirations. “He got to be what he wanted to be.”

Brad likely would have looked up to Jack Franklin, a Santa Barbara firefighter who is working the Christmas shift today.

As often happens on this day at the Carrillo Street station near State Street, Mr. Franklin and his company will eat a prime rib meal with dozens of family members in the garage that normally houses the engines.

“Generally it’s a zoo,” he said. “There are a lot of kids running around, with all their Christmas toys — remote controls on the floor where the engines (normally) park. But you drop everything when you have a call.”

And it happens.

Mr. Franklin, a fire engineer and former paramedic, has eaten holiday dinners in the front seat of a speeding ambulance.

“For the most part, it’s a lot of medical emergencies,” he said. “On holidays we’re (often) taking grandpa to the hospital because he’s having a heart attack. It’s a little bit too much excitement . . . with the whole family there.”

Sometimes, the fire station doesn’t need a chef. One Christmas, a family whose child nearly died of sudden infant death syndrome before being saved by firefighters brought a ham dinner to a small local station manned by three people.

“They brought a meal for like 25,” said Battalion Chief Chris Blair, who also works today. “We had ham sandwiches for weeks.”

As good as that meal may have been, its extravagance surely paled in comparison to the six-course dinner that will be served to hundreds tonight at the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort in Montecito, where a good night’s rest costs anywhere from $600 to $2,500.

The dinner, to be enjoyed in a renowned dining room with sweeping ocean views, will cost $120 a plate. And Rubin Cosio, the hotel’s food and beverage director, has the unenviable task of ensuring that the yuletide feast is worth every penny.

But he said he’s not worried.

“It’s only high-pressure if you don’t plan it correctly,” he said.

The hotel’s staff is making a special effort to see that each guest’s needs are tended to.

For instance, a “very senior manager” of a Fortune 500 company with a penchant for the $900-a-bottle Patr|ó|n Platinum tequila will find one waiting in his room, accompanied by two glasses with ice on the side.

“Some just like it straight up,” Mr. Cosio said. “It’s not anything you would make a margarita with.”

The hotel festivities, which include a $90 buffet, will be heavily attended by the L.A. elite who “just want to get away from their hurried lives” — executives, for instance, from CBS, NBC, Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios.

As the roughly 500 well-heeled folks wine and dine in Montecito, about 850 convicts will simply dine in the Santa Barbara County Jail, on Calle Real near Turnpike Road.

The inmates will eat a turkey dinner, attend services and sing Christmas carols.

Throughout the day, the Rev. Ivan Vorster, a 30-year pastor at the Harvest Christian Fellowship in Santa Barbara, will visit single cells, sitting face to face with some men who are “extremely dangerous.”

The Rev. Vorster isn’t scared, and not just because he will be accompanied by a guard.

“They are generally very respectful,” he said. “There’s a longing for their loved ones, for home. . . . (Talking with them) is declaring that somebody cares.”

One inmate, a young man who said he’s in for stealing, said he will give a sermon of his own.

“I feel like I’ve been called to preach the word,” the man said while hanging out with fellow inmates in the drug-treatment section of the jail, a less restrictive area that civilians can enter. “There are tools in here to better your life. You just have to use them.”

A few miles away, at a hospice on Calle de los Amigos near Hope Ranch, a 56-year-old literary agent from New York City is dying of a rare lung disease.

Al Lowman, whose list of clients includes singer Diana Ross, former Teen People magazine editor Christina Ferrari and folk singer Judy Collins, said he will spend Christmas Day resting at the Serenity House. The small facility accommodates six patients who expect to have less than six months to live.

“Growing up, my heart was not into (Christmas), but it is this year,” said Mr. Lowman, who was recently visited by Ms. Ross, hospice staff members said.

A talkative man, Mr. Lowman is upbeat even though his only son will not be able to visit him this year.

“I love living, and I love dying,” he said.

Mr. Lowman spends much time on the phone, doing business. He just finished editing the manuscript for Ms. Collins’ still-untitled book about creativity.

But he is not bed-ridden. Mr. Lowman sits in a chair, paces about the room and even kneels on the floor to call up on his computer the cover of Ms. Collins’ book — a painting she did herself.

To him, the Serenity House is aptly named.

“I’m having a holiday in the heart,” he said, mouse in hand, looking over his shoulder. “I’ve never been happier.”