Bilingual Schooling Is Failing, Parents Say

Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, January 16, 1996

Las Familias del Pueblo is holding its first parent meeting in 13 years of providing after-school care to the children of garment workers.

Attendance is standing room only.

The subject that has drawn so many to the storefront center after a grueling day in the nearby factories: Bilingual education, is it working for our children?

And the gut feeling of these parents is: No, it is not.

While the debate over bilingual education rages in the halls of academia, it also erupts in venues closer to home and heart. And there, the sentiments do not always jibe with the latest research.

On this night, one father stood from his chair to articulate the quandary.

"A lot of us want our kids to learn Spanish so they can write to their grandpas or whatever," Lenin Lopez said in Spanish. "But I want my children to learn English so they won't have the problems that I've had."

The audience of more than 60 parents applauded.

Their children go to Ninth Street School, a Los Angeles Unified campus near downtown's skid row, where nine in 10 students do not speak English. Last year only six students, about 1%, mastered enough English to test out of the school's special bilingual classes.

Ninth Street's principal, Eleanor Vargas Page, considers the dissatisfaction voiced by the Las Familias parents ill-informed.

The school retooled its bilingual program just last year, Vargas Page said, infusing it with more English sooner than ever before. Those changes were a response, she said, to parent concerns as well as a districtwide push to speed the transfer of bilingual program students into the educational mainstream.

English reading now begins in fourth grade and next year Vargas Page hopes to start it in third grade. She gives worried parents a program schedule showing that their children spend most of the school day in English classes, though she concedes that homeroom and recess are counted in the English category.

And, she tells them, teachers report that students are flourishing.

"We know children are already acquiring English as a second language sooner . . . but anyone who wants to see statistics right now, I can't give them that," Vargas Page said. "The reality is, we won't see how well our children gain until five years into the program."

Such a promise of future rewards does not mollify the parents at Las Familias.

They consider English fluency the key to unlock the handcuffs of poverty, a key they themselves will probably never possess.

By crossing the border into the United States, they thought that they had secured that benefit for their offspring. But watching their children continue to struggle in English, year after year, has made them lose faith in the American education system.

They file their children past a visitor to prove their point.

"Say something in English," one mother prods her 9-year-old son.

"Animaniacs," the fourth-grader says, smiling. Can he write in English? He asks to have the question repeated, then answers, "No." Read? "A little."

These parents maintain that the elementary school has been unwilling to heed their requests for all-English instruction. Vargas Page said she has simply tried to explain the theories behind the existing program.

Programs such as Ninth Street's are based on research that favors giving immigrant students a strong base in their native language before immersing them in English. Although some other studies have advocated faster immersion in English, the most recent national study suggests that keeping students in native-language classes for at least five years gives them a better foundation for future academic success.

Beyond theory, Vargas Page cites the practical difficulties of separating some students for alternative programs in English on her 460-pupil campus.

"We don't have enough students to fill up [English immersion] classes at each grade level," Vargas Page said. "I might have to have four grade levels in one room."

Leading the parents' cause is Sister Alice Callahan, who founded Las Familias as part of her mission to help the poor and homeless.

She is heartened by the fact that Ninth Street School is part of the district's LEARN reform program, which aims to give teachers, parents and community leaders voices in campus administration.

Judy Burton, the district's top LEARN administrator, said she will meet with parents, administrators and Callahan later this month to try to determine if adjustments to the school's bilingual program are needed.

Under the district's current bilingual education plan, parents have the right to request English immersion classes for their children, Burton acknowledged, but school representatives also have the duty to explain why they think their approach is better.

"There's a dilemma when you have two different opinions of what the best approach is and they are such strong opinions," Burton said.

And though bilingual research findings are being cited by both sides, Los Angeles Unified has no data of its own on which teaching approach has worked best.

The district's high student transiency rate and its inadequate computer system make it impossible to track individual students or even groups of students to validate either the native-language classes that the school offers or the English immersion approach that Callahan and her parent group favor.

So Callahan relies on personal observation, and the broken English that she hears among the immigrant children in her charge.

Over the years, she has become increasingly alarmed because the Ninth Street students who spend afternoons at her center do all their homework in Spanish, she said.

They pick up spoken English from other children and television. But without formal instruction in reading or writing English, Callahan fears that they have no way of developing good grammar or a broad vocabulary, or preparing for middle school or college entrance exams.

"What we know is the bilingual system was intended to help children learn another language, and maybe it works in some places," Callahan said. "But we know our children are not learning to read and write in English. . . . And poor kids don't have the luxury of catching up later on."

Standing quietly in a corner as Callahan speaks is Moises Negrete, 16, who comes to Las Familias most afternoons for tutoring. He has attended Los Angeles Unified schools since kindergarten, including several years in the Ninth Street bilingual program. He lobbied his way into a magnet high school and now is fighting not to flunk out.

"I can read, but I can't understand what I am reading," he said, looking at his feet. "They never showed me the vocabulary I need now."

80 Students Stay Out of School in Latino Boycott; Protest: Parents seek more English-only classes at Ninth Street elementary campus.;

Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, February 14, 1996

Abigail Ramirez was one of more than 80 children kept out of downtown's Ninth Street School by Latino parents Tuesday in a protest against bilingual education, and she wanted to talk about why.

"My mom is worried because she wants that I speak English and do right my work," the fourth-grader said, taking a break from making a valentine at Las Familias del Pueblo, the skid row community center where the boycott was organized.

It is just such persistent difficulty with the English language--particularly with reading and writing--that led 63 parents to endorse the strike after a series of letters, verbal requests and parent petitions demanding English-only classes produced no results.

By state law, immigrant parents must be offered English-as-a-second-language instruction for their children. Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Sid Thompson said he was meeting with bilingual administrators Tuesday and again today "to make sure that option is being offered in this case."

However, the striking parents want more than high-level meetings about them. They vowed to continue the boycott today after the principal and the school board president declined hand-delivered invitations to meet them Wednesday night.

"What an inappropriate response from a public agency," said Las Familias Director Alice Callaghan. "They work for the children. They seem to have forgotten that."

Every missed school day costs the district state funding, which is calculated on average daily attendance. State Department of Education officials estimated that each absent student represents about $20--or about $1,600 a day for the Ninth Street strikers.

Board President Mark Slavkin said he was dismayed that students were being held out of school, but believed that the dispute should be handled at the campus level.

"I don't want to reinforce the idea that this is about going up the chain of command," he said.

Ninth Street Principal Eleanor Vargas Page said she would prefer that protesting parents come to the regular monthly parent meeting--scheduled Thursday evening at the school--so that "all of our parents . . . have the same information and accurate information."

Vargas Page said she was perplexed by the protest because only four parents applied for English-only instruction this year, and three were granted it. About 90% of Ninth Street's students do not speak English, but fewer than a fifth are in English-based classes full time.

Many of the boycotting parents said they never applied to change their child's program because they felt intimidated by the school bureaucracy. Instead, they took their concerns to Callaghan, they said, because they were more comfortable acting as a group.

Ninth Street officials portray their approach to native-language instruction as more liberal than that of many district schools.

A recently revised class schedule shows that 90% of the school day is spent in English, though a closer look indicates that the English category includes recess and homeroom.

At the campus Tuesday, the contrast between the perspectives of the school and the protesting parents was stark.

Assistant Principal Oscar Kreis cleared a path to the side gate for entering students as about three dozen protesters passed out leaflets, entitled "Padres"--Parents.

"This is a pet peeve of one person," Kreis said, referring to Callaghan. "We have 150 parents show up for parent meetings, and none of them have ever complained about this."

Yet at least six additional parents took their children home after reading the leaflet Tuesday, while many others agreed to attend Wednesday's meeting.

"Nearly all the parents here say the same thing as these parents," parent Vicky Valdez said in Spanish. "We are afraid to speak up, we Latinos--that's the truth. But once we hear someone saying what we believe, we will join in."

A few blocks away at Las Familias, pandemonium reigned. The din of children's voices filled the center as students played table pool, worked jigsaw puzzles and constructed a Lego house.

The arrival of each member of the media sent a wave of excitement through the center, and most reporters left with a glitter-laden valentine crafted just for them.

Despite Callaghan's promise that the children would spend the day speaking English, the lack of formal instruction made fulfillment impossible. But here and there, efforts were made.

Volunteer teacher Lydia Lopez, a member of the Las Familias board, sat in a corner helping children thread string through sewing cards. She only gave them the card of their choice if they identified it in English.

"Do you want to play with us?" Lopez asked, speaking slowly. "Which card would you like?"