English Initiative's Spanish-Speaking Roots

How Latino parents' boycott of a Los Angeles school led to a statewide proposal to scrap bilingual education

LOS ANGELES–GROUND ZERO of the bilingual education revolt is a squat concrete and glass storefront on the edge of Los Angeles’ gritty skid row district.

There, in the Las Familias del Pueblo community center, Spanish-speaking garment workers two years ago plotted a campaign to get their children out of mostly Spanish-language classes at nearby Ninth Street Elementary School.

Now they are at the epicenter of a controversy that has rippled across the country, igniting passionate debate among academics, politicians, civil rights groups, parents and teachers. As a result of those parents’ rebellion, California voters will decide in less than three months whether to scrap bilingual instruction in public schools.

The parents’ motivation was uncomplicated: They wanted their children educated in English, the language of opportunity in the land of opportunity.

“It was important for the parents to unite and get what we want,” Hilda Mendez, who kept two of her children out of Ninth Street for the two-week boycott in February 1996, said in Spanish. “We wanted them to learn English, because in this country, that is the language that is spoken. I want my children to be better than me.”

The protest might have remained a historical footnote in the continuing tug-of-war over bilingual education were it not for Ron Unz. But when the Silicon Valley millionaire read news accounts of the parents’ cause, he made it the foundation of Proposition 227 — the statewide initiative to eliminate bilingual education — on the June ballot.

It seems inevitable that the bilingual conflict would start in Southern California. This is where the challenge is the biggest and the stakes are the highest.

Los Angeles County took in more immigrants in 1993 than any state other than California and New York. And the massive Los Angeles Unified School District — the second largest system in the country — staunchly supports bilingual education as the best way to teach children who lack basic English skills.

More than 430,000 L.A. Unified students — two in three of the district’s enrollment — come from homes where English is not the first language. Nearly three in four live in poverty. By contrast, four in 10 of Santa Clara County’s 245,000 schoolchildren come from homes where English is not the first language and about three in 10 are impoverished.

School districts in San Diego and Orange counties, too, have been grappling for years with how to best teach similarly burgeoning populations of immigrant students.

Whether these children succeed or fail academically has profound implications for California’s economy and welfare system, notes education professor Patricia Gandara of the University of California-Davis.

“California’s economy can’t survive without these kids,” she said. “It can’t take on that many children who are undereducated.”

Symbolically, opponents of bilingual education could not have lucked into a better story than the Ninth Street boycott.

In the shadows of downtown L.A.’s gleaming skyscrapers, thousands of immigrant men and women toil away over sewing machines for $20 to $40 a day, piecing together designer clothes to fill department store racks. Most don’t have time to sort through the philosophical pros and cons of bilingual education.

But they know what they want for their children. And by mid-1995, many were concerned their children were not being exposed to enough English at nearby Ninth Street Elementary School.

In their eyes, the issue was simple. With their low-pay factory jobs, they had only a tenuous grip on the American Dream. Their children could take the next step toward embracing America’s educational and economic possibilities by doing one thing: learning English.

“There’s more of a possibility of them reading and going to the university,” Genovia Pastor, the mother of three, said in Spanish after her shift ended one evening. “They can get better jobs.”

Ninth Street — like many L.A. schools — was educating students primarily in Spanish while it slowly introduced them to English. But parents demanded their children be placed in English-language classes — their legal right.

Kids removed from school

By February 1996, when the school district still had not moved their children despite repeated requests, the parents pulled them out of school. After two weeks, the school agreed to place the children in English classes that fall.

The parents’ main advocate and adviser during the boycott was the Rev. Alice Callaghan, a soft-spoken Episcopalian priest who watches their children after school at Las Familias del Pueblo community center.

“These garment workers can barely make it,” Callaghan said during a recent tour of the nearby sweatshops. “They don’t want their kids working in factories, or selling tamales on the street corner or cleaning offices. They want them to be successful lawyers, and they can attain that through learning how to read and write in English.”

Even the children prefer English.

“It’s better to know English,” said 10-year-old Sandra Losada, a fifth-grader who switched into English-language classes after the boycott. “We understand everything better now. We can read books and understand the teacher.”

L.A. Unified officials are apologetic for the Ninth Street mess, acknowledging an “unfortunate communications breakdown.”

But the controversy did nothing to shake the district’s faith in its bilingual program. As attacks on bilingual education have intensified statewide in the last year, district officials and thousands of teachers remain committed to the approach.

That commitment is readily apparent at Cahuenga Elementary School. For more than a decade, teachers at the 1,200-student campus, in a neighborhood of plain, stucco houses on the edge of Koreatown, have taught students English by teaching them in their native language first.

Principal likes approach

It’s an approach that principal Lloyd Houske and his staff say makes sense. Students feel more comfortable and their inability to speak English doesn’t hamper them from learning subjects such as science and math because they are taught those lessons in their native language at the same time they are learning English, Houske said.

Teachers see little benefit in the English-only approach espoused in the Unz initiative. They fear that students now flourishing in Cahuenga’s program might founder in all-English classrooms.

When students are in English-only settings, “they’re not learning anything except English,” said Adeline Shoji, Cahuenga’s bilingual coordinator. “They can’t grasp any of the other concepts because they’re still struggling with the language.”

Reflecting current thinking in bilingual education, Shoji says that maintaining students’ native language not only boosts their self-esteem, but it gives them an advantage later in life over students who speak only one language.

“I think it’s very important for students to develop language skills in their primary language,” added Lizza Irizarry, who teaches first grade at Cahuenga. “Once they are solid in their native language the transition to (English) is smoother.”

Districtwide, though, L.A. teachers are split almost down the middle on bilingual instruction. In a close vote last year, 48 percent of the 15,000 teachers who cast ballots said United Teachers of Los Angeles should support Unz’s initiative.

L.A. Unified officials are not deterred by the teachers’ position. This month, they released an internal study concluding that students in native-language programs such as Cahuenga’s fared better than those in mostly English-language classes.

The study looked at 5,817 students who had remained at the same elementary school from first through fifth grade and gone through either the district’s basic bilingual program or an alternative program in which most instruction takes place in English.

How students compare

On English-language reading and math tests administered last year, graduates of the native-language programs performed better than students in the English-language programs, according to the study. In reading, students from the traditional Spanish-English programs scored at the 28th percentile on a national standardized test compared with English-language program students at the 21st percentile. In math, bilingual students tested at the 33rd percentile while English students scored at the 26th percentile.

Critics noted the dismal overall achievement of all students. And they pointed out that the district’s small student sample excluded the thousands of children who move from school to school. What’s more, they say the district downplayed data showing students from bilingual programs were far less likely to be literate in English by fifth grade than students in English-language classes.

Nonetheless, officials say the study shows the district is on the right track.

“We base decisions on sound pedagogy, on both empirical research and research in our own district,” said Forrest Ross, district administrator for the elementary language acquisition program. “We’ve been in this business a long time, and the results show we are making progress.”

In 1981, Los Angeles was one of the first California districts to study whether the theories then being refined about bilingual education would work in real schools. That study, now called Project MORE, continues at 22 of the district’s 439 elementary schools and has become the basis for its bilingual policies.

Project MORE teachers undergo more extensive language training than regular bilingual teachers. Strict guidelines dictate when a student can receive English instruction. And, as much as possible, students are grouped into classes by ability and literacy levels.

Project MORE director Diana Hernandez said these tactics help the district avoid the sloppy application of bilingual theory that has doomed other schools.

“What happens in many schools is that teachers arbitrarily decide when to add English,” Hernandez said. “We have a more specific, rigid program. I think we need to retrain teachers in terms of the research and why they need to do things a certain way.”

An ongoing district study of Project MORE students shows that graduates of the program perform better than the district as a whole on standardized tests.

Nonetheless, bilingual education continues to invite criticism, especially from teachers.

Last year’s teacher referendum on the Unz initiative was the fourth in union history, all revolving around bilingual education. It was championed by Doug Lasken, a teacher at Ramona Elementary School in Hollywood who has spent 10 years working with Armenian- and Spanish-speaking students.

Lasken said he became frustrated by district rules that prohibited teachers from introducing written English materials to students before tests indicated they were ready.

“What really started to get me was kids who were quick and teaching themselves English — and there were plenty of them,” Lasken said. “And I would ask to get them tested out of the program, and it was very difficult.”

Support for Prop. 227

Many longtime proponents of native-language instruction found themselves in Lasken’s camp, and some are saying they intend to vote in favor of Proposition 227.

Ramona teacher Dana Koon said many teachers are frustrated with the district’s rigid program.

“I do believe it’s easier to teach a child whose family speaks Spanish at home in their native language,” said Koon, 52, who has been teaching for 10 years. “But I also believe you should not withhold English from them. It’s gone too far in the other direction. They’ve asked for this Unz thing.”

Alicia Benavides is a Mexican-American who was recruited to work with Spanish-speaking students in their native language, but refused, citing philosophical objections to the bilingual program.

Today, Benavides, 33, teaches 17 of her 20 first-graders at Budlong Elementary in South Central Los Angeles in English, including those who came to school speaking Spanish.

“In theory, if you read (about) this program, you would have your child involved, I would have my child involved,” she said. “But the reality is, many children don’t learn English until middle school, and many children are finding that extremely difficult.”

Some teachers are bitter

Many veteran teachers, meanwhile, are simply bitter about having to learn a second language, or being asked to go back to school to learn how to work with language-minority students. Others resent the extra money paid to teaching recruits for speaking a second language.

Los Angeles was one of the first California districts to offer financial incentives to bilingual teachers. The $5,000-a-year stipend is doled out in installments and is contingent on teachers working with a certain percentage of their students in their native language.

District officials say the stipend is supposed to encourage teachers to use their language skills with the students who most need it.

But critics contend the money encourages teachers to keep students in native language instruction, even if they no longer need it.

“You don’t get paid unless you keep them out of English, and there are teachers who do not want to lose the money,” Koon said. “The stipend is not designed to produce results.”

Such criticism aside, neither Proposition 227 nor the district’s bilingual program gets the president of the L.A. teachers union’s endorsement.

“My personal opinion is that (the Unz initiative) just replaces one extreme for another,” said Day Higuchi. “The real question is how do we provide a high quality education for poor students? How do we raise standards? That’s the issue, and it’s not being talked about very much right now.”

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