ALICE CALLAGHAN has been at the skid-row community center Las Familias del Pueblo since 1981. Among its services, Las Familias offers after-school programs for the children of downtown garment workers, a largely immigrant, non-English speaking community.

When she started working with the children of these hard-working immigrants, she said Wednesday, Callaghan thought “the theory of bilingual education made wonderful sense.” But theory and practice proved to exist worlds apart. “We had a sixth-grader whose homework was to practice handwriting the letter B,” she said. The kids just weren’t performing as well as they should, no matter what Las Familias did.

Children were entering the local school, taking bilingual classes, but not really being exposed to English until middle school, as they were hitting puberty. The early years, when children most easily adapt to another language, weren’t the years when students were exposed to reading and writing English. “It’s misnamed,” Callaghan said of bilingual ed. “It should have been named Spanish.”

Then Callaghan learned about ELDP, the English Language Development Program, which immersed students in English as soon as they entered elementary school. She suggested that parents insist on ELDP when the Ninth Street Elementary School tried to place them in the “bilingual” program. But the school would not accommodate most parents. What followed was a parental revolt. In February 1996, Las Familias parents pulled about 90 students from the classroom until their local school agreed to provide more ELDP the following year. Eventually they won that goal, although as Callaghan noted, if the parental rebellion hadn’t been widely publicized — it received national attention — the parents would still be asking and not getting.

Opponents of the Unz initiative, which would require English immersion programs for most students, discuss the need for parental choice. They complain that his measure, if it qualifies for the June ballot and is passed by voters, would rob parents of their right to choose “bilingual” programs. But as Callaghan noted, the system has made an art of not giving real choices to poor parents who don’t want their children to languor in years of non-bilingual bilingual ed.

For decades, the schools have turned a deaf ear when parents have begged for their children to learn English. Indeed, Ninth Street principal Eleanor Vargas Page told the Los Angeles Times, “I feel that what they want is exactly what we’re providing.” That was just before angry parents pulled their kids out of classrooms. Apparently someone forgot to tell these adults that they didn’t want their children to learn English.

Elizabeth, age 17, lives with her mother and younger sister and younger brother. Her mother barely speaks English. Thanks to the bilingual education program in her Los Angeles public school, she didn’t begin to learn English until the fourth grade. Today she is an advanced placement student, who nonetheless has had special help improving her vocabulary. Still, her 7-year-old brother’s English is better than hers — and she’s an exceptional student.

Today, entering students are really learning English in their first year of school. The wonder is that parents had to wage a high-publicity protest in order to get the schools to do something that works.

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