Assemblymember hosts two events highlighting community needs, Cambodian-American issues

In two separate Saturday discussions, O’Donnell addresses gun control, state budget, education and need for dual-language Khmer program in schools

Patrick O’Donnell, California’s 70th District assemblymember, hosted two community events on Saturday, March 3 in the Long Beach area.

The first was a morning Coffee and Conversation discussion with residents at Ecco’s Pizza, 2123 N. Bellflower Blvd., where the topics of gun control, state budget and local education were highlighted.

Later that Saturday afternoon, O’Donnell hosted a Khmer health-education event at Mark Twain Library, 1401 E. Anaheim St., to discuss issues affecting the Cambodian-American community in Long Beach. During that discussion, Cambodian-American residents stressed the need to include the Khmer language in school curriculum.

Gun reform, one of the most polarizing topics within the United States in recent memory, is again being passionately disputed in the country in light of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14.

Nationwide, the debate has been rampant about what can be done to address a norm in the United States– the mass murder of innocent civilians in public settings, such as concert venues, nightclubs and, notably, school campuses.

Days after the Parkland shooting, similar risks were identified in Los Angeles County schools, including purported threats at Long Beach institutions, such as Millikan, Polytechnic and Wilson high schools. The Long Beach Police Department arrested a 15-year-old freshman at Millikan and a 16-year-old junior at Wilson in connection to the separate threats. The risk at Polytechnic was deemed uncredible, according to the department’s press release on March 1.

In the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, local police arrested a 17-year-old El Camino High School student for suspected criminal threats to the Whittier campus. At the suspect’s home in Norwalk, officers found a cache of guns, including assault weapons and handguns.

Sheila Walizadeh, an English teacher at John Glenn High School in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, was in attendance at O’Donnell’s community-conversation event last Saturday. She expressed vocal concern about her and her son’s safety as teacher and student, respectively. Her son attends Carver Elementary School.

“As a parent and an educator, I’m afraid of being shot at work, I’m afraid that my son will be shot at school,” she told the Signal Tribune after the event. “When I go to work, when I send my kindergartener to school, I should not be afraid of them being murdered. I should not be afraid of being murdered in my classroom. Please help us. What I heard today is really a lack of urgency.”

At the event at Ecco’s Pizza, she criticized O’Donnell and Diana Craighead, vice president of the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education and guest speaker, for being “ambiguous and vague” in their responses about school safety in the Long Beach district. During the discussion, Walizadeh proposed limiting access into schools to prevent intruders, but Craighead said that idea would also limit exits for students and potentially make the situation even more dangerous. Walizadeh said she was not pleased with Craighead’s answer.

During a Coffee and Conversation event on Saturday, March 3 at Ecco’s Pizza, Patrick O’Donnell, California’s 70th district assemblymember, and Diana Craighead, vice president of the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education and guest speaker, addressed a Norwalk school teacher’s concerns about security at local institutions. In light of the Parkland school shooting on Feb. 14, multiple threats were thwarted at Long Beach schools, including Millikan, Wilson and Polytechnic high schools.

Craighead told the Signal Tribune the Long Beach school district is doing the best it can to protect its students.

“There is so much more that we are doing that I was not able to say today, because that would really be a separate conversation,” she said. “We could spend several hours on that alone, so I don’t believe I was able to give a very comprehensive look at what’s happening in the school district as far as school safety is concerned. I think, for some people, we can’t just make things safe enough. I know that there are some people who would expect us to have armed guards and security cameras at all of our schools. And, quite frankly, that’s just not going to happen. There are other people who think we should arm teachers. That’s also not going to happen. So, I think falling short of that, for some people, we are not doing our job, and I don’t believe that’s accurate at all.”

As a former classroom teacher and father of two kids in the Long Beach Unified School District, O’Donnell said he is a firm believer in gun control and understands the urgency in keeping kids safe from gun violence.

“I want them and every other student in their school and across the state of California and beyond [to be] safe every day,” he said in an interview with the Signal Tribune. “And, to me, it starts with gun control. But, are there other things that we should look at doing too? And I know that Long Beach Unified is doing that now, talking about more secure entrances, things like that, so I know that conversation is starting. It’s going to cost money, and it is going to take a little bit of time. I know people want it tomorrow. There were some passionate voices we heard today. Listen, they’re not wrong. It’s just that we need to make sure that we do it right, we’re doing it for the right reasons, it’s effective, it’s thought-out and within the bounds of our budget, as well.”

As far as the California state budget is concerned, O’Donnell said there is currently a projected $7-billion surplus this year, also implying that it may even jump to $9 billion in May. He said the budget surplus is good news, and he would prefer that the State spend the money on paying long-term debt, as opposed to storing it in its rainy-day fund.

“I don’t know if we should be going into new programming right now and building ongoing expenditures that we’re going to be forced to cut in just a few years when the next recession is coming,” he said.

Craighead thanked the public for passing Measure E in the November 2016 election, attributing the measure’s funds in allowing the district the to renovate aging school campuses in the area, where a lot of the school buildings were built in the early 1950s, she said.

She added that the school district is also utilizing Measure E funds to install new air-conditioning systems in all of its campuses. Craighead mentioned that conducting a class in hot temperatures is an uncomfortable and serious issue for staff and students.

Craighead emphasized closing the achievement gap and having kids from all backgrounds, including those from poor socioeconomic neighborhoods and English-language learners, get the opportunity to go to college. She acknowledged not all students have the intent of going to a college after high school, but she said it is important that everybody has that pathway as an option.

California gives schools the freedom through the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) to use its money as it deems fit for the intended greater good of students. Craighead said Long Beach Unified is using some of its resources to make AP exams for high-schoolers more affordable. She said the out-of-pocket cost for most families is $5 per test, while the school district pays the rest.

Long Beach Unified is also investing in the SAT and PSAT exams and providing the preparatory material at no cost for students.

There is also a college-readiness report, which is given in the fall and spring to determine what classes students need to not only graduate from high school, but get into the college of their choosing. Currently, the report is administered in high school, but Craighead said she hopes it can start with 8th-graders in the near future.

Late last year, Long Beach MemorialCare announced that Community Hospital would end medical services in 2019 as a result of an active fault line located beneath the facility that could pose as a seismic threat to the structure. O’Donnell introduced Assembly Bill 2591 (AB 2591) in February to seek an extension for the seismic compliance at the hospital.

O’Donnell said Community Hospital’s east-side emergency room is crucial to the residents on that side of the city.

This week, MemorialCare issued a press release announcing a 120-day lease termination notice of Community Hospital due to challenges maintaining the facility’s acute-care services and resources with a diminishing staff.

In a statement this week, O’Donnell wrote that he is disheartened by MemorialCare’s move to terminate all services earlier than indicated at Community Hospital. He said he believes the decision is motivated by MemorialCare’s desire to both leave the hospital and prevent other providers from serving the greater community. Explaining that Community Hospital offers the only emergency room on the east side of the city, he said the decision will put even more pressure on other emergency rooms throughout the region and endanger the health and safety of east-side residents.

Cambodian community
Boasting a mile-long corridor known as Cambodia Town, Long Beach is native to the most diverse Cambodian community outside of the country itself. However, a significant aspect of the culture is fading away with new generations– the language.

Local Cambodian residents gathered on March 3 at Mark Twain Library for a community event hosted by O’Donnell to emphasize the importance of incorporating Khmer language classes in schools.

Charles Song, with the Cambodian Association of America (CAA) and activist with the Khmer community, explained that the verbal disparity between parents and kids has presented itself over the last 30 years, and he suggested that a dual-language course, with English and Khmer, could be a valuable resource for Long Beach students who reside in such a diverse population, many of whom can only speak Khmer.

“I’ve been with the CAA for about a year now, and I also see some challenges with some of the youngsters who graduate from colleges,” Song said during the event, “moving on to graduate with either a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, but, yet, they don’t know how to speak Khmer. So, with that purpose alone, sometimes it is difficult for them to even apply for that same job [in their] own community, because they have to deal with folks like them, folks like these who are present for you today. So, perhaps we can work together.”

During her remarks, Shannon Villanueva, principal at Demille Elementary School in Westminster, said her school has the first Vietnamese-English, dual-language immersion program in California. Much like Long Beach and Cambodia’s relationship, Westminster holds the biggest Vietnamese population outside of Saigon.

“Little Saigon is really in our back yard,” she said. “We have, through the partnerships and the relationships with the community, with the local universities, we have been able to implement this Vietnamese dual-language immersion program. It has not been easy, but it has not been impossible.”

At a Khmer health-education event inside Mark Twain Library on March 3, Shannon Villanueva, principal at Demille Elementary School, shared her experiences championing a Vietnamese-English, dual-language immersion program at her Westminster school. The Westminster program is an example of the Cambodian-American community’s request of dual-language immersion of Khmer and English at Long Beach schools.

Demille Elementary School’s program started in 2015 with two kindergarten classes that followed a 50-50 model of English and Vietnamese. The classes have an English-speaking teacher and a Vietnamese-speaking teacher who job-share the lessons. Villanueva said that, this past year, classes have expanded to three kindergartens due to higher demand.

“The word is out, the interest is out there,” she said. “Our children are being extremely successful.”

In her research, Villanueva also discovered that there could be a dip in a child’s language learning if he is not committed to one dialect 100 percent.

“They might perform lower than their grade-level, English-only peers until about 5th or 6th grade, and then their achievement accelerates,” she explained. “So, as I was looking at these comparisons […] they are excelling above the traditional students, and they are at or above the district-level averages. So, if there is a concern of, ‘Gosh, this isn’t good for kids.’ We are preparing them for the future and being bi-literate.”

O’Donnell acknowledged the need for bilingual education, calling it an important part of spreading cultural awareness to students. He highlighted Proposition 58, passed in the Nov. 8, 2016 ballot, that repealed bilingual restrictions that were introduced in Proposition 227 in 1998, which would positively contribute to the Cambodian community’s request for dual-language instruction.

He said part of introducing the Khmer language into school curriculum is going through the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) process, an educational plan and tool for schools that defines the goals, actions, services and expenditures to improve student outcomes. O’Donnell said it is important for him to understand the logistics, such as specific schools in the district and the amount of resources available, to properly consider adding dual-language courses.

“So, let me engage with the school district and engage with you again to figure out how we can put you under that umbrella on how the Local Control Accountability Plan is put together, formed and what priorities are embedded within it,” O’Donnell said. “I hear you, I’m going to work with you, we’re going to need to do more, we’re going to need to do it together, it’s going to take a little bit of work, but, I think if people are listening to us– and, they will listen, I’m confident of that– we can get where we need to be.”

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