Hispanic parents speak up for their children

SCHOOLS: Reserve gives way to calls for bilingual education _ and results.

ORANGE, CA—Margarita Castro gazed up at the school board members leaning back in their plush chairs and tried to hide her trembling.

It was just a school board meeting in Santa Ana, but Castro and a coterie of Hispanic parents were about to do something they’d never done before.

They were going to demand.

“So many parents see things happening and they want to scream, they want to say things, but can’t get the nerve,” Castro said.

“They’re just afraid. It’s the sleeping giant every Latino has inside of them. “

The nervous parents persuaded board members to reverse an earlier decision and agree to more Spanish instruction in the district’s newest school, Wallace Davis Elementary.

Tonight in Orange, they’re hoping for a repeat.

Emboldened by Santa Ana’s change of heart, hundreds of parents in Orange Unified School District plan to march at the offices where school board members will consider a plan to eliminate the district’s bilingual-education program.

Using phone trees throughout the day and into the night Tuesday, parents spread the word of the protest. It promises to be a huge affair, with police, child care and free busing from the surrounding area.

“The climate for Latinos is not good. We’re always being talked about that we’re this or that,” said Carmen Martinez, who is organizing the effort in Orange, which she expects could draw 1,000 people.

“There’s a lack of respect, and this is why they make decisions without our input. We are simply tired of that. “

For many years, Hispanic parents tended to leave education to the people they considered the professionals.

Now a core group ofHispanics is slowly changing the image of the passive parent through ground-level campaigns built on fliers, letters and an uneasy feeling that they are being ignored.

“Parents who wouldn’t say boo before are going up to a reporter or a camera and saying this is how I feel,” said Pam de Loetz, who coordinates bilingual-education programs in Orange.

“The community here has turned a corner and they’re never going back. “

Orange school board members want to join a growing movement in the county toward English-only instruction. Board members say it’s the best way to teach children English, and they’re perplexed by parents’ reaction.

“What are their concerns? ” asked board member Bill Lewis. “I would have thought that most parents would want their children to learn English as quickly and fluently as possible, and I’m quite surprised that so many are unhappy. I think we’re doing their kids a favor. “

A few months ago, the board decided to try to get a special waiver from the state. Parents of Spanish-speaking children contend they were never notified. In meeting after meeting, they have presented petitions and showed up in large numbers to urge board members to keep the current program.

Nothing has changed.

Hispanic parents said they have felt passed over while the board has accommodated other parent requests. In February, the board decided against year-round education at La Veta Elementary after a few parents complained.

“Those things are hard to explain away,” de Loetz said.

For inspiration, Martinez looks to Castro, another mom who got angry enough to make a difference.

Four months ago, the Santa Ana school board had decided to turn the district’s newest school into a fundamental school. For the mostly Hispanic children who would be attending, that meant instruction mostly in English.

But no one had consulted them, say the parents, whose children are now at Hoover Elementary School and are headed for Wallace Davis. The parents wanted more Spanish in the program. When they found out at a school meeting, their shock quickly turned to anger.

They met, organized, planned. Neighborhood market owners put fliers in grocery bags. Parents buzzed with concerns and ideas at bus stops and churches.

Castroworked with other parents into the night to come up with an alternative program.

“I wanted to wake them up,” she said. “Show them they are the people who can change things. ” The parents returned in March, Castro at the helm, with polite complaints. And their own plan, an idea to teach Spanish grammar through fifth grade. In the early grades, Spanish would be taught 70 percent of the time. By fifth grade, it would make up 20 percent of the curriculum.

“I wanted to prove to them that we’re not ignorant,” Castro said.

At the meeting, Castro rallied about 60 parents outside the district board room. She held aloft a bar chart explaining the parents’ bilingual program.

The parents’ aim, Castro said, was to ensure that students would be able to speak and write in both languages at the end of elementary school.

“We need to obey the parents,” said board President Nativo Lopez, who campaigned in favor of fundamental schools. “We should respond to them, not necessarily how we want it to be. “

Last week the board, led by Lopez, reversed itself. Spanish will be taught in every grade at Wallace Davis Elementary. The parent plan sailed.

“They felt they hadn’t been given a say. To see them organize like that _ it’s nice to see,” Hoover Elementary Assistant Principal Frank Haydis said. “We’re not used to seeing those numbers getting involved. Our hope is that the interest will carry over. “

Haydis has seen other big issues inflame parents, then fizzle.

Castro was back at a Hoover parent meeting Tuesday night to keep up the momentum.

“It’s your job and yours and yours,” she said pointing, “to wake the others. “

The victory, meanwhile, has pushed a core group of parents through their old barriers of respectful awe toward officials. Many had to overcome long-established ideas about their place before they could even stand before school board members.

“We were shaking, seeing the desks and the chairs _ it impresses you,” said Raul Duran.

At an early meeting, Duran had paced the parking lot clutching a folder.

Duran had second thoughts and for a moment considered going home. But something pulled him back.

“I looked at the folder and said I’m already here,” Duran said.

“I can’t go back. “

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