During the past two weeks, scores of parents at Lorena Street Elementary have marched in picket lines, wrangled with school administrators and threatened to keep their children out of class until 38 English-speaking students are placed back into classes where only English is spoken.
Tina Ceballos says her daughter, Kellie — who doesn’t speak Spanish — began “crying hysterically” when she was reassigned to a “modified bilingual” first-grade class in which the teacher spends half the time instructing in Spanish and the other half in English.
“The majority of the time, the teacher speaks in Spanish while our kids are running around hitting each other on the head with crayons,” Ceballos said. “They think just because you live in East L.A. and your last name is Ceballos, you should be in a bilingual class. But we don’t speak Spanish at our house.”
The Boyle Heights students were transferred after the Los Angeles Unified School District changed the way teachers are assigned to schools. District officials say the new plan, which eliminates teaching positions at many schools, will allow the district to trim the budget without having to drastically cut teachers’ salaries.
The controversy at Lorena Street School began when the school was forced to dismiss two longtime English-speaking teachers, which resulted in students being switched from English-only classrooms to modified bilingual classes.
A few days after the transfer, about 150 parents and students gathered in front of the school’s main entrance chanting, “We want our teachers back” and “United parents will never be defeated.” One student waved a sign that said, “English is a beautiful language. Let me read it correctly and make my dreams come true.”
Parents staged another protest Wednesday and pledged to continue demonstrating until Lorena Street Elementary restores the English-only classes.
“The way we see it is that the principal wants to make the whole school bilingual,” said parent Lydia Morales. “We want this to be both a bilingual and English school.”
Principal Mona Riddall acknowledged that modified bilingual classes result in less instructional time for students because teachers must split their time between Spanish- and English-speaking students. But she said she is just carrying out a district decision.
Last month the school board adopted a new method of determining how many teachers would be assigned to each school. Under the new plan, Lorena Elementary had to dismiss two teachers — Rick Wong, a Chinese-American, and Roberta Welch, an African-American.
Wong and Welch, neither of whom speak Spanish, were targeted because the district has a policy that prohibits schools from dismissing bilingual teachers, said Lorraine Verduzco, who coordinates Lorena Elementary’s bilingual program. But the school also must comply with a 1976 U.S. Office for Civil Rights agreement that requires all predominantly minority schools in the district to maintain a ratio of no more than 67% minority teachers to 33% Anglo teachers, she said.
With the hiring of six new teachers at the start of this school year, Lorena Elementary exceeded the 67% limit and was forced to dismiss Wong and Welch, Verduzco said. About 650 of Lorena Elementary’s 1,000 students are classified as having limited English proficiency. About 590 of those students are enrolled in a bilingual program, she said.
“It’s very upsetting because we’ve been there so much longer, and also because the other teachers were selected over us because they’re bilingual,” said Welch, who has taught at the school for the past nine years.
Said Wong: “I take pride in the school and I respect this community. It really hurt me to know that the district would pass this down on us.”
At least 55 elementary teachers from Eastside and Downtown schools were dismissed as a result of the new policy, said Asst. Superintendent Angie Stockwell, who oversees Eastside and Downtown schools. These teachers will be considered for classroom positions that become available, Stockwell said.
While many schools have lost teachers, Stockwell said Lorena Elementary is the only school she knows of where parents have been protesting the loss of English-speaking teachers.
“Parents are complaining that the homework their children are bringing home is in Spanish, and that’s wrong,” Stockwell said. “Parents are also complaining that teachers (in the modified bilingual courses) are only speaking Spanish. These are truly legitimate concerns, and they will be corrected.”
While bilingual education is a hot topic among educators, the controversy at Lorena is unusual in that bilingual and monolingual parents are united in their support for more classes taught in English. Some bilingual parents even believe the school should be expanding its English program at the expense of its bilingual program.
“My child is in a bilingual class right now, but next year I want him to make the transition into English classes,” Ana Moreno said. “I do believe in bilingual education, but I do believe students should learn English. Bilingual parents see English classes as a goal for their children.”