By Gary Walker
On any given day, one can view the smiling faces of young children heading to Broadway Elementary School in Venice, as is the case in many schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Parents engage each other after dropping their young charges at the gate and sometimes walk a few blocks away for coffee and more conversation.
But these days, unlike the children inside the elementary school, many of the parents unfortunately view each other with suspicion, making Broadway the flashpoint of a simmering debate that has pitted parents of a popular language immersion initiative against families whose children and grandchildren have been attending the neighborhood school for decades, and in some cases have graduated multiple generations.
The Mandarin Chinese immersion language program at Broadway, implemented three years ago, has been by all rights a highly popular initiative and is growing at a steady pace. Families have flocked to the school to enroll their children, which in LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer’s eyes, is a sign that his plan for an instructional language pipeline is coming to fruition.
As a testament to the popularity of the Mandarin program, applicants staked out their positions in front of the school during the early morning hours of March 8 to apply for the 75 student slots for the 2013-14 academic year.
Zimmer, who represents Venice schools and was recently reelected after he defeated Mar Vista parent Kate Anderson in the March 5 District 4 race, has supported similar initiatives at two Mar Vista schools, Grand View Boulevard Elementary School and Mark Twain Middle School.
But unlike at those schools, tensions at Broadway have been high since last year when Zimmer was forced to confront a situation that involves not only parental choice, but also a clash of different cultures, gentrification, real estate, socioeconomics and according to some, misplaced entitlement.
After considering a variety of options last year as the Mandarin program continued to grow, Zimmer made the decision to move the language immersion students to Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey, a decision that enraged many of the parents whose children are studying Chinese.
They began their pushback last year – lodging complaints about being forced to drive their students to a new campus – before multiple entities, including the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Education Committee and Zimmer’s office, as well as taking their grievances to online message boards and blogs.
Odysseus Bostick, a Westchester parent whose daughter is in kindergarten in the Mandarin program, said a move to Marina Del Rey Middle School would create an additional challenge to the fledgling immersion program, which is going into its third year.
“Every single year we’re recruiting teachers, and we have to find teachers for third grade because there are not a lot of bilingual teachers available who are fluent in traditional Chinese and are credentialed,” he explained. “They’re just hard to find.”
Parents like Bostick who want their children to learn Mandarin Chinese are coming to neighborhoods like Venice but largely live outside the school’s enrollment boundaries.
Broadway has fewer that 25 classrooms, which created a headache for the district. Soon, the choice came down to two options: keeping the Mandarin program at Broadway, with its growing numbers, or moving it to a place where it could develop with more classrooms.
When it was suggested that Zimmer change the enrollment boundary to move children who are not in the Chinese immersion program to Westminster Avenue Elementary School, tensions that had been lingering below the surface erupted.
Some parents at Broadway’s English speaking program, largely composed of African-American and Latino families including some who have lived in Oakwood and the surrounding neighborhoods for decades, decided to leave the school.
Others decided to fight back by protesting the Westminster transfer, which was quickly dropped once it became public and was dismissed by Zimmer.
Emotions also boiled over last year when several Latino students, according to some of their parents, were removed from the Mandarin portion of the school for not meeting certain language guidelines, which no longer apply to the program.
While Mandarin immersion parents sing the praises of Broadway Elementary Principal Susan Wang, many of the Latino parents accuse her of exacerbating the conflict by intentionally not informing them about the language immersion requirements, a charge that she denies. They also believe that Wang is encouraging the Mandarin immersion parents to protest the move to the middle school.
“She’s the one who has been in the middle of all of this,” said Leonel Martinez, one of the neighborhood parent leaders.
Martinez claims that Wang only wants a select group of children to participate in the immersion initiative.
“(Wang) opened the program for everyone and later told many of us that our children couldn’t be a part of it,” he recalled. “I think that she just wanted to push the community people away and only let (Caucasian) and Mandarin children in.”
Zimmer recognizes how tense the situation is at Broadway two years after “colocation spring,” in which hard feelings emerged at some District 4 campuses between some charter schools and neighborhood schools.
“I have dealt with some very highly charged, complex issues in my district,” the school board member said. “I would submit that this one is the most highly charged.”
Zimmer said given the dearth of space at Broadway and the popularity of the Mandarin immersion initiative, not everyone is bound to be happy with whatever decision was made.
“There is no way to make a decision that will be best for every parent,” he acknowledged. “The best thing that a school board member can do is to recommend the solution that is best for every child in every program.”
Bostick said the Del Rey middle school’s infrastructure is currently lacking in some amenities that the Mandarin immersion parents would like for their children.
“The facilities there need a lot of work,” said Bostick, citing the lack of sinks and water in some of the classrooms. “I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but there are so many things that need to be done to those facilities that the cost of moving our program there is huge at a time when there are fewer resources dedicated to growing it where it is and then maybe moving it later would probably be a better choice.”
Martinez, who has lived in Venice for more than 20 years, said gentrification in Venice in recent years has exacerbated the situation at Broadway, with many longtime residents feeling that newcomers are seeking to change their neighborhood and dismiss their way of life.
“Imagine if you have a house and you invite someone over. Then that person invites someone else to come and live at your house,” he said. “Soon, they want to take over your house and one day they tell you ‘why don’t you go live somewhere else, a mile away?’
“That’s how we feel. It feels like (the Mandarin parents) want to push us out of our school.”
Bostick said he understands why parents of the neighborhood school are also anxious, but he says none of the parents that he knows are trying to push anyone out of Broadway.
“The mistaken concept of our school is an exclusive school and it’s really inclusive,” he said.
The school board will vote on a resolution to pay for needed upgrades at the middle school on April 9, which will largely determine if the program will move.
Bostick said he would take his daughter to Marina Del Rey, if that is where the program ultimately settles.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Wang did not return calls for comment.