Schools throughout the nation have come a long way in honoring the mosaic of languages, customs and traditions that comprise the diverse landscape of the United States. Some create elaborate showcases relegated to a specific culture’s history on a given month, while others make it a point to infuse their curriculum with the themes of diversity throughout the year.
At Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista, the latter example is in full effect. Each month, the K-5 school celebrates a different culture, and the academic approach is more than cursory.
The school is one of the most diverse on the Westside, and its principal firmly believes in making the importance of different cultures a part of his students’ everyday learning experience.
“It’s very important for our school to promote multiculturalism because we have a dual language program and that’s part of our appeal,” explained Grand View Boulevard Principal Alfredo Ortiz.
The Spanish-English language immersion program at Grand View has been in existence longer than any 90-10-language initiative in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Children learn in Spanish 90 percent of the time in kindergarten, and in each successive year the ratio drops 10 percent until the fifth grade, when students are taught in both languages 50 percent of the time.
Each Friday at Grand View, the students and faculty take part in an activity that highlights a particular culture through a story, food, or dance. This, Grand View Categorical Programs Coordinator Chandra Payton believes, gives the students a well-rounded education.
“By exposing them to a whole host of different cultures, we hope that the children will feel proud of where they come from,” Payton said. “They also see that we are proud of their culture, and when they see that adults are also celebrating they can enhance their experience and become more enriched.”
Feb. 24 was the last Friday in February, which is Black History Month. On the school’s playground, fourth and fifth grade students read stories on Kwanzaa, displayed maps that they had drawn of the continent of Africa and performed an African dance.
A parent at the school, Layla Sewell, explained the presentation and later let the students take over reading of the history of Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration that honors African-American heritage and culture.
Sewell led the younger students, who were gathered in front of her in a circle, in a recitation of the seven principles of the holiday:
Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race;
Kujichagulia (Self-determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, speak for ourselves and stand up;
Ujima (Collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together;
Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together;
Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness;
Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it; and
Imani (Faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
In January, the elementary school celebrated Asian cultures, including the Chinese New Year.
“We not only have a language program, but the way that we teach Spanish, our target language, is through culture,” Ortiz said. “Culture informs language. You can’t teach language in a vacuum.
“Likewise, with Black History Month, we can’t just gloss over it or just read books about it,” the principal added. “We want it to be interactive because that’s how a lot of our kids learn.”
Ortiz noted that children learn at different speeds and in different ways. “We have some who are auditory learners, some who are visual learners,” he said. “So it’s really important for us to get students involved in this awareness of the fabric of the different cultures that make up Los Angeles.”
Grand View celebrated the 20th anniversary of its dual language program last June and invited former teachers and alumni to take part in the festivities.
Fourth grade teacher Suzanne Hoffman does not teach the Spanish immersion curriculum, but said she has seen how the program has changed her students.
“I think it’s great. We’re really proud of it,” Hoffman told The Argonaut last year. “It’s an amazing thing to have students learning to read and write in both languages.”
Payton says what has helped make “Cultural Friday” a success is that parents are participating as well, whether they are supervising the children who are watching the performances, assisting the teachers or taking part in the celebrations themselves. “They help organize the event, and when children see their parents participating, I think it makes them proud of who they are,” she reiterated.
Last year during Black History Month, Ortiz worked with the Los Angeles Jazz Society to bring musicians to the school to perform, teach the children about jazz and a bit of history about music that has long been apart of the African-American culture.
Having the musicians entertain the students had a dual benefit, Ortiz recalled. “February is Black History Month and we’ve been celebrating African-American History Month and their contributions to American history,” he said.
“Secondly, we’re an arts school, and music is big here. Bringing jazz to the school actually lends itself to what we already do here, which is the promotion of music and the arts.”
Last year, the elementary school’s dual language initiatives as well as its arts programs were threatened by a charter school petition that would have forced them to share space with the charter and lose its parent center, as well as other classrooms. The charter, Inner City Education Foundation, decided to withdraw its petition for classrooms after learning about the parents and the school administration’s deep reservations.
The school has also made great strides in its Academic Performance Index (API) scores in recent years. The API is a measurement of academic performance of California schools.
In each of the last three years its scores have risen, and last year the school was 31 points shy of 800, the benchmark for California schools.
This month, Grand View will be exploring American-European cultures and in May, Pacific Islanders’ heritage.
Ortiz pointed to the neighborhood outside his school as evidence that multiculturalism is flourishing and he wants Grand View to continue to honor the heritages of its students. “Look at Los Angeles; look at Mar Vista. The demographics are changing,” he said. “We’ve come a long way in the time that I’ve been here, and I think that we’re being successful with our instructional programs as well as building our school community.
“It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work, and multiculturalism is a big part of what we want to promote at Grand View.”