With her exaggerated miming during sing-alongs, her use of raisins to teach counting and her quickness to affectionately wrap her arms around a student struggling with a concept, Sally Peterson is unmistakably a kindergarten teacher.
But Peterson’s playful classroom image, which would seem to place her on the fringe of weighty matters of educational policy, belies her growing national prominence as a controversial opponent of widely accepted methods of bilingual education.
Peterson, who has taught at Glenwood School in Sun Valley for 26 years, founded the group LEAD — Learning English Advocates Drive — two years ago because she believed that teaching methods prescribed by the Los Angeles Unified School District relied too heavily on a student’s native language.
The hasty founding of LEAD in the Glenwood teachers’ lounge in March, 1987, thrust Peterson into the spotlight. Content for most of her career with the isolation and anonymity that comes with being an elementary schoolteacher, Peterson, 49, found herself addressing union meetings, school board members and legislative committee hearings.
‘Finally Took a Stand’
Though brash and, at times, fellow teachers say, even rude, she was always considered a good teacher. Then she was told she was uncaring and too lazy to learn Spanish. A liberal Democrat, she was targeted as a racist. She was laughed at. But she refused to go away.
“I’ve always been one that strongly believed in things and finally I took a stand,” she said. The opposition “just made me more and more determined.”
Never a union activist, she became embroiled in the internal politics of the United Teachers-Los Angeles and won a referendum that changed the union’s policy on bilingual education to support greater use of English. Because 162,000 of Los Angeles’ 600,000 students are classified as limited-English-speaking — the most in the nation — the referendum drew national attention.
Another LEAD initiative, which could cause a major revision of key parts of the Los Angeles schools’ approach to bilingual education, was put before the union’s membership in April and inspired 18,000 out of 22,000 members to cast ballots. Those votes remain uncounted, however, because Latino union members have challenged technical aspects of the election.
The key element of the April initiative would force the union to reject salary stipends of as much as $5,000 to be paid to certified bilingual teachers. The district argues that stipends are necessary to attract and retain the teachers needed for limited-English-speaking students, 90% of whose primary language is Spanish.
But Peterson, whose awards include a 1986 designation as Los Angeles’ best primary grade math teacher, disagrees. She said a teacher’s pedagogic skills, not her linguistic skills, make the difference in how much students learn.
“The bilingual lobby in this country did an excellent job of convincing the public that it is almost anti-American and anti-Hispanic to deny these children the right to have a bilingual teacher,” said Peterson, referring to a network of pro-bilingual groups that push their views with policy-makers.
“But I say a bilingual teacher, unless you’re trying to teach Spanish to English-speaking children, can hold them back. You don’t want to hamper a child (by) constantly using their native language.”
‘Our Joan of Arc’
Roger Hughes, a computer science teacher at Gahr High School in Cerritos and a leader in the Orange County LEAD chapter, said of Peterson: “She’s our Joan of Arc, she’s our spirit. Sally will win . . . because the system is a failed system. We’re not going to let people here burn her at the stake, because she has a lot of support.”
Stanley Diamond, chairman of U.S. English, a San Francisco-based group that promotes the exclusive use of English in schools, quickly became an ally. “(Peterson) is bucking the well-entrenched, institutionalized, bilingual administration,” he said. “She is the first one who came out front and said, as a matter of conscience, ‘I can’t continue with this.’ “
Proponents of bilingual programs, including some members of the Los Angeles Board of Education, have called Peterson a racist. There have been demonstrations in front of her school, with some participants carrying signs associating LEAD with Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan.
LEAD has been attacked for the limited financial support it has received from U.S. English and English First, another English-only organization that shares LEAD’s pedagogic views. And LEAD members and others who question bilingual education have been accused of being ethnocentric anti-intellectuals who fail to see the value of being multilingual.
“Latinos are taking their place in the mainstream of America . . . and that is difficult for a lot of people to accept,” said Jose Govea, a Buchanan Elementary School fourth-grade teacher who represents bilingual teachers on the UTLA board of directors.
“The monolinguals fear they are going to be displaced, that there is no longer economic security for them in America and particularly at their school,” Govea said. “And if somebody thinks, out of ignorance or fear, that they are not going to have a paycheck, that stirs a lot of anger.”
But Peterson said she has distanced herself and LEAD from racists and other virulently anti-Spanish-language groups. “I really do believe that we are altruistic and want to do what is best for the kids,” she said.
“We are strictly trying to achieve education reform and we don’t want to attach ourselves to all these other agendas.”
Peterson said financial support from English-only groups has been helpful “because everywhere I went, they closed the door in my face. They helped me, then all of a sudden I became a ‘puppet of the English-only movement.’ That (the English-only movement) has nothing to do with my intent.”
Alive and Well
Despite Peterson’s campaign, bilingual programs are alive and well in the Los Angeles school district. Last spring, the Board of Education adopted a comprehensive bilingual master plan that describes in great detail how bilingual education will be taught.
“I don’t want to suppress LEAD or groups like LEAD, but . . . in reality it doesn’t matter,” said school board member Leticia Quezada. “This school district is going to have bilingual education as long as there are limited-English-speaking students . . . because it’s the best way we can ensure that our students are literate and graduate from high school.”
During the 1987-88 school year, 7.5% of the district’s limited-English-speaking elementary students were reclassified as fluent, a slight increase over the previous year; 10.5% of the secondary students became fluent, a slight drop from the previous year.
But school board member Jackie Goldberg said the goal of bilingual classes is not merely to help students speak English. “What we have is a program to get students to read, write and compute well enough in English to get into college,” said Goldberg, who admits becoming exasperated with what she said is Peterson’s oversimplification of the issue.
Operating out of Peterson’s living room in Burbank and a booth at Bob’s Big Boy restaurant on Glenoaks Boulevard, LEAD now claims 20,000 members nationwide and has chapters in San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, Valencia and New York City in addition to Los Angeles. Chapters are forming in Chicago and Dade County, Fla.
Peterson claims LEAD members teach at most of Los Angeles’ 600 schools, but not all of them pay the organization’s $10 annual dues. She said she had no up-to-date records of LEAD’s actual membership, but said its budget is far below the $25,000 that would require them to file extensive income and expense records with the state.
Although the local issues vary, the central battle is always the same: LEAD teachers believe teaching academic subjects such as math or history in a student’s native language holds them back because it does not help them learn English.
In contrast, bilingual education advocates argue that academic subjects should be taught in a student’s native language, with daily instruction in English. Otherwise, they say, students will fall far behind native speakers in other subjects while concentrating on learning English. In three to four years, they say, students become fluent in English and are already up to speed in other academic subjects.
English Is the Rule
In Peterson’s classroom, students are taught under what is known as an Individual Learning Plan. Their parents sign forms allowing them to be taught mostly in English. And except for occasional translations by bilingual aide Ana Marie Catalan, and the assistance given by older Spanish-speaking students, the classroom would seem to be the same as any other English-speaking kindergarten.
Several parents of students in Peterson’s room, including some who speak little or no English, marched in front of Glenwood in April on her behalf. Maria Dominguez, who speaks no English, said through an interpreter that her son, Mariano, was doing well in Peterson’s class.
“He’s very good at everything he’s learning,” she said. “I wanted him in her class, because I thought English would be the best for him to learn, not Spanish.”
Peterson emphasizes homework, rewarding students when they turn in their projects. Exercises in counting, reciting complete sentences, addition and cutting-and-pasting are completed with smiles and laughter.
Coming mainly from poor and lower-middle-class Latino working families who live in the flight path of Burbank Airport, few of Peterson’s students had the advantage of attending preschool and learning such basic skills there as how to use crayons.
For example, at the beginning of the school year, Jorge, a tiny, solemn-faced 6-year-old, spoke virtually no English. Now, in class and on the playground, Jorge chatters happily in Spanish and English. He still is behind the other students, but Peterson keeps close watch to make sure he progresses.
Jorge “was so quiet” in September, Peterson recalled. “And now he is blossoming just phenomenally.”
“If I give my kids a lot of English, they’ll learn English in a year,” she said. “But if you give them all Spanish, you’re really on your way to locking them into Spanish.”
That idea, however, runs counter to the latest theories of how children become fluent in languages, said Michael Genzuk, an adviser in the Los Angeles bilingual education department who helps train teachers.
“It seems logical that the more you use English, the faster it will be acquired, but every bit of research shows us that that is just not the case,” he said. The problem, he said, is that language is not learned in a vacuum. It is best learned in the context of substantive ideas and concepts. And if children have not learned the concepts, they will have difficulty learning the language well.
Although the theoretical debate will continue, the bottom line is that at Glenwood nearly 500 of the school’s 800 students are considered to be limited-English-speakers.
What that means for Peterson, said Glenwood bilingual coordinator Linda Meier, probably is a transfer to an upper grade where students are more likely to already have mastered English.
“Sally is basically a really good teacher . . . but she’s not good enough to meet the needs of the students she has, with the techniques she has chosen to use,” Meier said.