Yolanda Granados knows that Southern California employers value workers who speak both English and Spanish. So she wants her son, Luis, to grow up bilingual.
But when Luis started kindergarten last fall at Glenwood School in Sun Valley, most of the instruction he received was in Spanish. Granados worried that, as a result, he would fall behind in English. She asked school officials to change her son’s classroom assignment.
Many Latino parents are surprised when they find out that much, and in some cases most, of the instruction in a bilingual classroom is in Spanish, said Gloria Soto, a parent activist at Glenwood. But, she said, school officials discourage such parents from requesting a change to a classroom where English predominates.
“Parents . . . ask what they can do if they don’t want their child in the bilingual program,” Soto said. “I tell them that if they don’t want their child in the program, then sign them out.”
In April, Soto organized a group of Glenwood parents to march at the school in support of Sally Peterson, the Glenwood kindergarten teacher who founded the group Learning English Advocates Drive. LEAD members argue that teaching in English, with assistance from an aide fluent in the students’ native language, hastens their progress in speaking English.
But the Los Angeles Unified School District’s master plan for bilingual
education is built on the principle that students are best taught in their native language, with daily doses of English instruction. When students able to read and write in their native language become fluent in English, those skills easily transfer to the new language, the district maintains.
State and federal laws require that parents be allowed to choose from the different language approaches. At Glenwood — as at many schools — the parents’ right to choose has become something of a tug-of-war between educators.
“They brainwash parents,” said Linda Meier, coordinator of the school’s bilingual program, referring to Peterson and the other three Glenwood teachers affiliated with LEAD. “They literally tell the parents that the reason their children cannot read is because of the bilingual program, and this is not true.”
But Peterson said Meier and other school district officials attempt to coerce parents into keeping their children in bilingual classes. At some schools, she said, a videotape is shown in which happy children are speaking Spanish and tearful children are speaking English. “This kind of harassment and duress is an insult to parents,” Peterson said.
When they start school, students with Hispanic surnames are tested to determine whether they are fluent in English. But the tests are so flawed that many who do not need bilingual instruction — including some born in the United States, whose parents do not speak Spanish — are put in the classes, Peterson said.
Meier denied that parents are coerced. “I would never do that to a parent because it’s not my child,” she said.
Meier and Peterson agreed, however, that Latino culture causes many parents to be deferential to teachers, making the parents vulnerable to manipulation.
About 500 of Glenwood’s 800 students speak limited English. Meier said about 100 of these students, including all of those in Peterson’s kindergarten class, have been assigned at their parents’ request to “individual learning plans,” where children are taught in English.
Individual Learning Plans
Districtwide, 22% of the 120,000 limited-English-speaking elementary school students are assigned to individual learning plans. But only 13% of those students participate in the plans at their parents’ request. The other 9% are assigned to the programs because bilingual classes are unavailable at their schools.
Granados, a former executive secretary, said it took several telephone calls, several visits to the school and a meeting with the coordinator of Glenwood’s bilingual program to get her son’s classroom assignment changed.
“I don’t mind my kid learning Spanish,” Granados said, but not at the expense of learning in English. She speaks mostly Spanish to Luis, and her husband, Luis Sr., speaks English to him.
“He’s Latino, but he was born in this state,” she said of her son. “I want him learning the language that is going to help him in this state.”
Meier said that since LEAD’s founding, many parents have asked to remove their children from the bilingual program. “I had to insist that these parents get properly informed” about the program, she said. “Some of the stories they come in with, I can see that they are totally confused.”
Peterson, however, complained that Meier’s counseling about the language instruction options has been one-sided. As a result, Peterson is the only teacher at the school allowed to counsel parents about where their students are placed.
Maria Dominguez, whose son Mariano is a student in Peterson’s class, speaks only Spanish. But Dominguez said through a translator that she wants her son to be taught in English. She said she was asked about placing him in a bilingual class, but refused.
“I like it the way it is,” she said. “He’s happy, and he’s learning very fast.”
Soto, who did not learn Spanish in school but picked it up later, said she and the other parents in her group think that bilingual education is necessary for students who speak no English. But such students should be quickly moved into classes taught in English, she said.
“The administration truly believes that what they’re trying to do is best,” Soto said. “But I would like them to come to individual schools and talk to parents and see what the parents want.”