Thirteen months ago at Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters, the district’s leading critic of Proposition 227 explained to a rapt audience how he planned to seek mass waivers from the new law so that thousands of Latino children could be kept out of English-immersion classes.
A true believer in the theory that Spanish-speaking grade schoolers should be taught in Spanish, school district bureaucrat Forrest Ross feared the new antibilingual education law would lead to mass failure among Latino children. He said children would be placed in cruel English-only surroundings and might even lose the ability to talk to their parents.
That day, Ross stood before a glitzy slide show, produced by his staff, and pointed to graphics showing how successful the besieged bilingual program here really was. Children in L.A.’s premier bilingual program, known as Project MORE, were steadily moving from Spanish to English literacy while learning their core subjects in Spanish, Ross explained.
“We know that children who learn Spanish first and English later are high achievers in their other subjects and later in school,” Ross said. “We can claim a real success here in Los Angeles.”
The audience, packed with Ross’ supporters, cheered. About 1,000 Los Angeles teachers had signed a manifesto declaring they would defy the new law and teach in Spanish, and Ross was their hero of the day.
Nearby sat Ross’ boss, Associate Superintendent Carmen Schroeder, chief of a bureaucracy known as the Department of Instruction and Curriculum. Schroeder so abhorred Proposition 227 that she failed for months to prepare for its expected approval by voters. Then she declared it “an insurmountable task” for her department to create English courses before school opened.
The school board backed Ross and Schroeder, unanimously asking that the State Board of Education exempt all 34 Project MORE schools. The board also sought its permission to ignore the law’s requirement that children kept in Spanish under a waiver from the law first receive 30 days of intensive English — a practice Ross said would terrify students.
Yet something very important was left unsaid that day: Not a single Project MORE school was actually succeeding in teaching English reading or writing to Latino kids. In fact, illiteracy raged among Latino children in Project MORE.
Board member David Tokofsky, who backed Ross, later conceded: “Project MORE should be called Project Less. The Latino students’ English-reading scores were in the tank, and they were even doing poorly in all their Spanish subjects.”
But nobody wanted to argue with Ross, who derives much of his power from an influential industry-lobbying network, the California Association of Bilingual Educators (CABE), a group feared by many politicians. CABE is known for its huge testimonial powwows, akin to the Promise Keepers men’s rights group, where educators are pumped up to believe that “research” proves Latino children must stay in Spanish for years before they can handle regular English. Educators and politicians who cross CABE have often ended up with their feet to the fire, called bigots, and worse.
English-immersion backers, however, weren’t worried. They saw Ross’ waiver plans as the final gasp from a doomed fad and predicted lawsuits by parents if the district continued to resist the law. When the courts struck down lawsuits by L.A. Unified and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to overturn Proposition 227 and the state board refused to grant Ross’ waivers, victory seemed theirs.
The immersion movement founders, multimillionaire Ron Unz and Skid Row’s Reverend Alice Callaghan, were thrilled. “A lot of people felt Superintendent Ruben Zacarias would get serious and maybe even do bold things, like launch a nationwide search for an English-immersion expert to bring the reforms to L.A.,” says Unz.
But that was not to be. Zacarias selected none other than anti-immersion guru Forrest Ross to ensure that immersion English was embraced in L.A. And Carmen Schroeder, who for years had been chief of the failed bilingual program in L.A., was kept in place as Ross’ boss.
Today, in Schroeder’s department — and its offshoot, Ross’ Language Acquisition branch — virtually nobody in charge supports English immersion. Their key aides, such as Geri Herrera and Toni Marsnik, are all well-known opponents. Both departments have seen to it that the old bilingual system is still the tail that wags the dog.
The new, reformist school board’s decision to buyout Zacarias stemmed from his failure to rein in bureaucrats still bent on erecting schools on toxic sites. But Zacarias’ downfall was also driven by his embracing of handpicked managers — such as those who run the bilingual program — who have resisted, sabotaged, and severely damaged his classroom-instruction reforms.
These profound internal battles are not widely known to such outspoken Latino leaders as state Senator Richard Polanco and MALDEFleader Antonia Hernandez. Speaking last week just before the school board voted to negotiate Zacarias’ buyout, Hernandez said, “The board has chosen a path that is detrimental to the short-term and long-term goals of the district.” Yet even as some Latino leaders attack the board, Latino parents openly complain that their children have not been getting a decent education.
One of Zacarias’ key failures is his botched effort to retrain several thousand grade school teachers who do not know how to teach children to read. Another is his failed plan to bring children up to their grade levels, who are now at risk of being held back. In each case, Zacarias placed bureaucrats in charge who oppose the skills- and research-based reforms that he himself was touting.
The sabotage by district managers of Zacarias’ teacher-training reading reforms became so blatant that last March, the normally equivocal Los Angeles Times urged Zacarias in an editorial to “find out how this happened and put a stop to the wrongheaded defiance it exhibits. Otherwise, his authority will be at risk.”
Zacarias did not take that advice.
In fact, last month’s elevation of outside lawyer Howard Miller to chief operating officer of the district is widely seen as bringing in a hatchet man to fire defiant managers.
“Dr. Zacarias has not been able to bring his staff under control,” board President Genethia Hayes said after voting to buy him out. “That is a management problem.”
As a result of such hands-off management, Zacarias’ orders for complying with Proposition 227 by teaching English immersion to immigrant children are also under siege, often from the very managers who sabotaged his other reforms.
Their defiance springs in part from the belief within the “whole language” and “fuzzy math” movements that minority children cannot be asked to master basic skills — such as memorizing their multiplication tables or effortlessly decoding the letters and sounds in a word. The theory, although now widely discredited, says that immigrant and poor minority children can somehow jump to “higher order” learning without having the skills enjoyed by suburban kids.
No attempt has ever been made to clean the house of LAUSD bureaucrats who cling to such views. And their opposition to teaching grade-level English reading and writing skills to immigrants is a powerful force against change.
Today, the old Spanish “bilingual” program has shrunk from 160,000 in 1997 to 22,000, but those 22,000 children face daunting layers of red tape if they want out of Spanish. Another 137,000 children attend so-called Model B English immersion — a part-Spanish, part-English program with no controls to ensure that English is taught. The vast Model B program has allowed Ross to preserve his pre-227 fiefdom of bilingual bureaucrats, bilingual coordinators, and 4,200 bilingual teachers.
(Ross and Schroeder did not respond to several requests for interviews, nor did their aides.)
Here is the current state of the district’s response to voter’s 18-month-old rejection of bilingual education:
* The bureaucracy still pays bilingual-certified teachers $5,000 bonuses to teach in Spanish, at a yearly cost of $21.2 million. About four dozen schools dominated by bilingual-certified teachers have become anti-immersion hotbeds where parents are pressured to sign waivers from Proposition 227. Those children are placed in the old Spanish program.
“A lot of people are asking why we still pay the $5,000 differential since we supposedly do English now,” says Ted Alexander, chief of district desegregation. “And people are asking why we have several thousand children separated under waivers learning Spanish. These are very legitimate questions. I think the public should ask these questions of those in the district justifying this. I think they should ask Forrest Ross.”
* In August, a grand jury found that many school sites opposed to Proposition 227 are teaching Spanish but calling it Model B immersion. The grand jury called for an end to Model B because of flagrant violations, but was ignored by the district.
Zacarias insists that Model B, taught solely by bilingual-certified teachers, permits only occasional help in Spanish — such as clarifying a tricky word. But within rogue schools, district sources say, bureaucrats follow a practice that CABE and other bilingual activists call “surface compliance.” This means that the paperwork indicates that English immersion is under way, but teachers conduct classes in Spanish.
According to one grand jury member who inspected a dozen schools: “We saw teachers doing Model B history or Model B math 100 percent in Spanish. We saw Model B classes without a single book in English. We asked, ‘Why are so many children enrolled in the Model B or waiver program?’ And we were told that district specialists came to assemblies and helped principals and teachers convince Spanish-speaking parents that their children would fail in real English immersion.”
* Zacarias does not appear to have been in control during the past several months. Hard-core immersion foes are trying to herd Latino students into a separate reading system emphasizing whole language — a widely discredited reading method, rejected by Zacarias, that is still passionately embraced by bilingual educators. Under Zacarias’ nose, his own bureaucrats last month hired an antiskills advocate — Adel Nadeau of San Diego — to coach the trainers in Zacarias’ new Literacy Trainers Program.
The new trainers are at the heart of Zacarias’ biggest curriculum reform: reeducating L.A. teachers to use research-proven, systematic, direct teaching of word decoding, phonics, grammar, and spelling skills to teach reading in English. Yet Nadeau is a key leader of a fight in Sacramento to dramatically lower the state standards that guide the teaching of such skills to immigrants.
“Adel Nadeau knows nothing about teaching reading — nothing!” says Alice Furry, an expert who has boosted English reading scores dramatically among Latino children in Sacramento and several cities. “What an incredible thing to imagine Nadeau influencing your city’s literacy trainers.”
Nor was it the first such incident. Last fall, Schroeder and Ross, longtime whole-language advocates who opposed the skills-based reforms sweeping through California, ordered teachers citywide not to teach any English reading or writing skills to English-limited children. Zacarias discovered the bizarre order — and overruled it — when the L.A. Times called for a comment.
Then, in March, news leaked that Zacarias’ touted “intervention” training in reading methods for 2,500 teachers at poor schools was another antiskills program, this time created by Nora Armenta, a whole-language proponent under Schroeder. Zacarias aides hastily added some phonics, but it was too little too late to save an effort that Zacarias had billed as a crucial reeducation for teachers.
When Zacarias chose not to discipline anyone, internal resistance to his reading reforms — particularly affecting English-limited children — began to spread.
For example, Ross is now distributing a special teacher’s handbook for teaching reading to English-limited children, which sources say is the old whole-language approach “dressed up” with cursory nods to spelling, grammar, and phonics — a new tactic by whole-language true believers.
One education insider contends that Deputy Superintendent Liliam Castillo, Ross and Schroeder’s boss, “is just appalled at what is happening. But she has too much under her jurisdiction, including the Belmont chaos. She has to choose her battles, and she has chosen not to battle Forrest Ross, who is impervious to change.” (Castillo did not return repeated requests for an interview.)
Despite such problems, the reformist school board, mired in the Belmont Learning Complex fiasco and the emotional battle around Zacarias, has never discussed the grand jury report, mass waivers at resistant schools, or the insider war against teaching English reading skills to Latinos, says board member Mike Lansing.
Nevertheless, says the plainspoken Lansing, a longtime educator, “It’s obvious this is a toilet that needs flushing.”
Ironically, Ross himself may inadvertently help them clear the pipes. Ross is retiring this month. And with a fed up school board primed for making big changes, Ross’ fiefdom may finally come under siege.
Out in the real world of the classroom, the bias against Proposition 227 among district bureaucrats has given English immersion a dual personality. At many schools, it is common to find one classroom of 20 Spanish-speakers being taught English reading and writing, while down the hall 20 children in the exact same “English-immersion” plan are being taught Spanish reading and writing.
At inner-city Hooper Avenue Elementary, kindergarten teachers who spent a year teaching English to Spanish speakers found that when the children entered first grade this fall, many were assigned to bilingual-credentialed teachers paid $5,000 extra to teach Spanish.
“The bilingual staff told the parents that these children would have to be transported to another school if they don’t want to take the waiver and learn Spanish,” says a respected teacher afraid to give her name. “Miraculously, these first-graders who already knew their English were suddenly signed up for waivers and are back in Spanish.”
Meanwhile, at 2,800-student Hoover Elementary School, a hotbed of anti-Unz activism where 70 percent of the teachers hold a bilingual credential and dozens signed the manifesto to sabotage English immersion, Principal Marie Leiva says she has her hands full “trying to rectify the problems that have been created here. This school had a good eight to 10 years of curriculum that was just waaay-out stuff — no skills, no English.”
In only her second year as Hoover’s principal, Leiva says Hoover has several highly political bilingual teachers “who are trying to convince the parents to sign the waiver. I have to really monitor and speak to the parents and try to learn if it is really truly their choice, or just heavy influence by a teacher. That battle is far from over at Hoover.”
One immersion teacher at 1,400-student Fries Elementary in Wilmington says that after children receive 30 days of intensive English upon entering school, as required under Proposition 227, teachers and administrators at Fries heavily lobby Latino parents to request waivers into Spanish.
“The school leaders here stirred up tremendous fear among the mothers that their children would forget their Spanish,” says the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears retribution. “I don’t blame teachers, because they’re paid an extra $5,000. And if they stick with the bilingual program, they are assured far more materials, texts, math workbooks — all stuff the English classes can’t get from Zacarias. But boy, do I blame the bureaucrats.”
Bilingual teacher Ambler Moss at 20th Street Elementary in South Central L.A. says his school is undergoing the same battles, with some parents approaching teachers to request English, only to be confronted by teachers “who are proselytizing and fighting back and getting parents to sign waivers for Spanish.”
Moss, who was raised in Spain and was once a self-described “hard-core supporter” of Spanish-language instruction, opposed Proposition 227 because he feels it should have applied only to younger children and been phased in. But he is “disgusted” by Forrest Ross’ post-227 programs, which he says clearly prevent Latinos from learning English by emphasizing whole language.
Several limited-English children are enrolled in Moss’ class, and Moss is paid the bilingual bonus. But he says: “I told my parents, ‘You can fill out any of the forms you like, but I’ll be teaching in English.’ My kids are learning English so fast it’s ridiculous.”
Yvette Greco — a credentialed bilingual second-grade teacher at Garvanza School in Highland Park who voted for Unz — says her school is also mired in teaching “almost nothing in English.”
Greco used to teach Spanish only. But six years ago she switched to half-English and half-Spanish because her students were not “transitioning” to English, as promised by Ross and California’s leading bilingual theorists such as Steven Krashen.
Now she teaches a combined Model A and Model B class almost entirely in English. (Model A, which is generally taught by nonbilingual teachers, allows a small amount of Spanish to be used by a teacher’s aide to help children.) To Greco’s delight, she has found that the children are having no trouble adapting.
“Our school still gives children a test to call them LEPs — Limited English Proficient,” says Greco. “But the truth is, these kids are not proficient in Spanish either. So why are we still forcing them into Spanish? Because bilingual teachers and administrators are indoctrinated in the beliefs of Steven Krashen and in seeing Spanish as some magical pathway to English. Getting a bilingual-teaching credential stamps the common sense completely out of most people.”
Even at schools that have large immigrant student bodies and relatively high test scores, like Ramona Elementary in Hollywood, teachers and parents say district bureaucrats stymie efforts to teach English. (At Ramona, not a single parent chose the waiver program.)
One Latina teacher is furious that Carmen Schroeder, in an April 20 memo, ordered schools to track all limited-English (LEP) children based on their speaking ability. Children who can’t say “hello” are called English Language Development 1, while children who can chatter happily in English are English Language Development 4.
“Schroeder has forced us to do the same thing we Mexicans were forced to do in the 1940s when we were segregated,” says the teacher. “Good teachers know you must mix children. But Schroeder makes the English Language Development 1 and 2 children spend the year together, and big surprise when they come out barely fluent. If I were a lawyer, I would sue us.”
To make matters worse, she says, teachers are encouraged to delay giving English-limited students the so-called CARE test, a difficult exam that releases them from the slow track into the more advanced English classes.
“Some teachers don’t want children to pass CARE because they can lose their $5,000 by promoting too many students,” says the Latina teacher. “So they make these poor children wait until the end of the year to take the test and give them just one shot.”
If a child fails the CARE test, she says they are made to wait another full year. “The CARE test should have been abolished by the school board when 227 passed,” she says. “It’s just shameful.”
Emelda Guzman, a parent with two children, is furious that in the years before Proposition 227 her children were kept in the bilingual program by pushy bilingual teachers at Micheltorena Elementary School in Silver Lake.
When her children transferred to Ramona Elementary, her son entered third grade illiterate in English. She has no faith in the bureaucracy and has marched into Ramona and demanded action for her children — unusual for an immigrant who speaks no English.
Guzman, speaking through an interpreter, says, “My children were born right here in the United States. My son is 11, and he is at the first-grade level in English reading because he was always kept in bilingual. Bilingual was bad news. He can’t write in English or in Spanish either.”
Today, Guzman has enrolled her children in Model A at Ramona and says, “They are finally learning English, but my son was in bilingual so long he is having a much harder time. I am very angry with the school for passing my son year after year without knowing anything in English. I even had to go to Ramona and fight them to hold him back in third grade because he had learned no English. My son needed Proposition 227 desperately.”
But many parents have no idea what is going on inside their schools.
At Belmont High School near downtown, for example, one respected teacher says, “Our Model B program is Spanish and that’s all it is. The parents believe Model B is some sort of wonderful English that won’t overwhelm their kid. They don’t understand that their child is spending hours doing his history report, reading, writing, all in Spanish.”
This teacher doesn’t fault the bilingual staff, who she says are encouraged by Zacarias’ underlings to teach Spanish while calling it English immersion.
“You should see the money that pours into the bilingual coordinator’s office for Spanish materials, while the English classes beg for books,” she says. “A lot of teachers know in their hearts they should be teaching in English. But what are you going to do when the whole infrastructure is set up not to teach English?”
Lucy Fortney, an outspoken first-grade teacher at Fair Avenue Elementary in North Hollywood, blames Schroeder’s Department of Instruction and Curriculum, Ross’ Language Acquisition branch, and Zacarias.
Fortney is furious that the district has kept in place the old bilingual system’s controversial Home Language Survey. If a Latino parent admits on the survey that any language beside English is spoken by anyone living in the home, the child is taken into a room (often a school library or the office of the Bilingual Coordinator) and asked several oral questions in English, known as the “PRE-LAS” test.
Says Fortney: “Savvy immigrant parents deny on the Home Language Survey that any language but English is spoken at home, just so their child won’t get PRE-LASsed by the bureaucracy.”
Fortney describes the PRE-LAS test: “They take a five-year-old child who has never seen this stranger before, and the stranger’s asking all kinds of questions; even kids who speak great English can clam up. It’s a disgrace. Every bureaucrat knows damn well that plenty of white and black children in L.A. would be deemed Limited English Proficient by this insane process.”
If a child fails to answer the PRE-LAS oral questions quickly and properly, he or she is officially designated Limited English Proficient and drawn into the old bilingual system’s web of red tape. They are tracked into classes with slow 1s and 2s or more advanced 3s and 4s and are only allowed into English mainstream classes if they pass the CARE test and a series of other hurdles.
These barriers are in opposition to Proposition 227, which requires that limited English children be provided a “good working knowledge of English” during their “temporary” immersion classes. Immersion classes, according to the law, are “not normally intended to exceed one year” so that children can be promptly moved into regular English classrooms.
Yet some parents are excited to see their children learning any English at all, after years in bilingual. They are unaware of the forces at work trying to prevent many of their children from being placed in regular English after a year.
Leticia Cobrales, a mother who speaks no English, has three children at Esperanza Elementary near MacArthur Park, which has arguably the lowest test scores in the city. She chose Model B. “The older one is doing better than my kindergarten one, but I think my children are learning English and Spanish,” she says.
Cobrales is very familiar with Proposition 227 — including its provision that children are to be enrolled in English immersion for one year before they are placed in regular English. “I believe my children will all be in English classes next year,” she says confidently. But that is highly unlikely.
Fortney, whose students are all designated as LEPs, believes the Spanish-language media have a duty to alert immigrant parents. “La Opinion could do a wonderful service for the community by telling them what it’s all about, because these parents are being blindsided,” she says. “My children have all been branded LEPs. I teach in English only, and my children are learning English beautifully.”
Some schools do seem to be getting much of it right, amid all the upheaval and resistance to the new law.
At Heliotrope Elementary School, in the heart of industrial Maywood, for example, the principal carefully laid out all the choices for parents at special meetings. Teachers say the principal carefully avoided promoting either the waiver program, Model B, Model A, or regular English classes.
Although about 85 percent of the children were in the old “bilingual” program, only 10 percent of parents chose to keep their kids in Spanish — a painful condemnation.
Nevertheless, at Heliotrope, teachers take Proposition 227 seriously, even if they disagree with it. Patty Abarca, a well-known teacher and an appointed member of the state Curriculum Commission, was overseeing her third-graders one recent day as several children eagerly lined up to read aloud to a visitor.
One small boy, Louis, read aloud in English: “It was a marvelous, magnificent tree house!” Another boy, Adrian, read the next sentence smoothly: “It had taken a week for Grandpa to finish building the tree house.”
Abarca opposed Proposition 227 and is grateful for Model B, because, she says, “even if they are born here, their parents speak Spanish to them at home, they go to church in Spanish, they watch TV in Spanish, and everyone for blocks around speaks Spanish. The children need a little guidance in Spanish.”
Abarca is a master teacher of grammar, phonics, spelling, word decoding, and other crucial reading skills. She now uses Spanish only about 10 percent of the day, largely for vocabulary clarification and directions. According to Abarca, who is frequently called upon for her expertise by the state Board of Education, the entire Los Angeles district could be producing immigrant children who are fully literate in English.
In Sacramento and Inglewood, among several other cities, Spanish-speaking children are making huge leaps in English-reading scores.
But no such revolution has hit classrooms in L.A., where Ross, Schroeder, and their cronies have bitterly opposed the research-based reading-instruction techniques adopted by other districts.
That may change now that L.A.’s reformist school board recently approved three reading reform programs for grade schools that are below the 50th percentile in reading. Schools will select one of the three programs, which include Reading Mastery and the widely lauded Opencourt (a reading series that has prompted talk of a “miracle” in heavily Latino and minority grade schools around the state).
Opencourt has boosted Inglewood’s once-horrific grade-school reading scores from the seventh and 10th percentile to the 55th percentile and above — a stratospheric level for an urban district jammed with English-limited and minority children.
Sacramento is seeing equally high English reading scores among its limited-English children. Moreover, the stunning scores are maintained from one year to the next, causing a huge stir among California educators.
One piece of bad news has yet to filter out to Latino parents in L.A., however: The new reading reforms, including Opencourt, will not be offered to the 22,000 children whose parents signed waivers to keep them in Spanish.
Unfortunately for those 22,000 children — because of the control of the bilingual movement by whole-language activists and whole-language curriculum developers — few materials that teach systematic, basic reading skills have been published in the Spanish language in the past 15 years. Opencourt and Reading Mastery come only in English. For now, the waiver children are stuck with whole-language Spanish books and mostly whole-language teachers.
At Aldama Elementary School in northeast L.A., Principal Martha Trevino Powell, an ardent critic of the old bilingual system, is eagerly preparing to launch Opencourt. Her entire staff began teaching a heavily English program before Proposition 227, and this year only one parent at Aldama requested a waiver into Spanish.
“Because I am Mexican-American,” Powell says, “I can get away with saying that the old system is an outrage, and it is still being chosen by the leadership at many L.A. schools. While those schools ignore the voters, our children are going to move ahead by leaps and bounds.”
Engaged in their struggle inside the schools, most teachers and parents have no real grasp of the high-stakes political war gearing up over Proposition 227 or that Los Angeles — with an eighth of all English-limited children in California — is ground zero.
Several bills designed to eat away at Proposition 227 were introduced by the Democrats this year on behalf of CABE and other bilingual education advocates. One that nearly made it through would have forced virtually every teacher in urban California to attend a controversial training course that steeps teachers in a host of unproven educational and cultural theories, including the beliefs of bilingual theorists like Steven Krashen and Jim Cummins.
The bill would have required any veteran teacher expected to teach classes with 10 percent or more English-limited children to get a costly “CLAD” certificate, which involves courses in an array of left-leaning educational notions — including the idea that many teachers are racists, that English is used to repress immigrants, and that Latino children must learn in Spanish for three to seven years.
The California Teachers Association (CTA) fought the bill, which in its weaker final version now requires that, in a few years, only new teachers will be funneled through CLAD ideology.
Justo Robles, a spokesman for CTA, says it was another attempt by bilingual true believers to keep California teachers within the Spanish-only ideological fold — something the CTA opposes.
“We recognize and celebrate the need to educate about one’s culture, but frankly the bottom line is that children have to be taught English,” says Robles. “Believe me, the true believers like CABE and Steven Krashen are off on a different mission entirely.”
At the same time in Sacramento, Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin — still a major backer of the discredited whole-language method and the rejected bilingual system — is working on several levels with CABE and others to whittle away at English immersion.
For example, Eastin created a Proposition 227 Task Force, led by some of California’s most politicized bilingual activists, which is helping her department find loopholes around the law. As her point person on Proposition 227, she has assigned longtime department bureaucrat Norm Gold, a vociferous opponent of English immersion and one of the architects of California’s bilingual and whole-language movements.
Norm Gold and Forrest Ross are widely seen as ideological twins, both known as Sandalistas –leftist whites who speak Spanish and who spent time in their 20s or 30s in Central or South America living among peasants or working for the Peace Corps.
Says one educator who knows Ross and Gold: “These two guys were among a handful of Sandalistas who joined a group of angry Chicano activists to launch the bilingual movement two decades back. Los Angeles was, and still is, their biggest prize.”
Yet according to the National Institutes of Health and respected reading experts like Russell Gersten of the University of Oregon, the theories still backed by Eastin and her adherents are not supported by any legitimate research or test scores. Says Gersten: “The conviction among bilingual advocates that teaching children in Spanish somehow leads them to English lacks a single piece of peer-reviewed, scientifically accepted research to back it up anywhere in the world.”
California’s bilingual programs, in fact, have long been in direct opposition to the successful public school programs in heavily bilingual Europe. In Europe, immigrant children are forced to wait to take classes in their native language until after the sixth grade, when they have become fully literate speakers, readers, and writers in the language of their adopted country.
Nevertheless, Eastin, Gold, and Ross’ efforts have been propped up for years by the federal Office of Civil Rights. The OCR is supposed to remain neutral on the programs that school districts select to help English-limited children succeed. But in fact, the federal office, now led by a former leader of MALDEF, is extremely aggressive in pushing long-term Spanish for Latino immigrant children.
According to one Sacramento civil rights insider, Gold and the OCR are now pushing extremely controversial new California guidelines “that will trap children in Spanish or limited-English classrooms” until the children achieve the same median test scores as native English speakers in their school district.
However, since native English children always achieve higher median scores than immigrant students, the expert says, “the proposed new guidelines will keep these children in Spanish for years unless they are exceptional students. Once a parent makes the fateful selection for Spanish, or Model B, that child is stuck. Having Norm Gold in charge of something like this is just unbelievable.” (Gold did not return calls seeking his comments.)
In another attack on the immersion law, Eastin’s office selected Adel Nadeau, the consultant from San Diego, to coauthor recommendations for state standards that were to be used solely to design a test for limited-English children.
Nadeau’s recommendations for the test standards included pages and pages of reading and writing skills that were so far below the existing grade-level requirements for other children in California that upset Latino political leaders quietly pressured Eastin’s office to raise them.
Even so, the test standards still say, for example, that limited-English children are not expected to correctly capitalize their words or use periods until the fifth grade — skills almost any second-grader learns, regardless of the language barrier. Moreover, pages of discredited whole-language practices inserted by Nadeau and her advisory committee had to be removed.
Despite that, many of Eastin’s antireformist ideas are still contained in the patched-up document approved by the State Board of Education. Currently, a huge political battle is brewing over whether these low test standards can be used to create a separate curriculum, which would divide the English-limited children into a decidedly lower track from the mainstream.
Forrest Ross is not waiting. He is already distributing special handbooks to L.A. teachers, telling them to teach to the low test standards. Says the consultant, “it could be just the loophole L.A. needs to bring the entire bilingual/whole-language garbage roaring back.”
Meanwhile, powerful political forces closer to home are drawing L.A. Unified into a unique legal entanglement over Proposition 227.
The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has lost major lawsuits intended to cripple Proposition 227 in other cities, is suing L.A. Unified to force the district to adopt a much more aggressive program for encouraging Spanish-speaking parents to select the Spanish waiver program. MALDEF also wants the district to allow an even greater use of Spanish-language teaching in Model B classrooms.
MALDEF attorney Thomas Saenz implied in an interview that L.A. brought its legal problems on itself by choosing to make parental choice between four programs “a key factor in how children are educated under the new law in this school district.” Although Saenz refused to give any details of his position, MALDEF apparently wants to force the district to make parental choice (between regular English class, Model A, Model B, or the waiver) a far more formalized and legally binding procedure that would set certain practices in stone.
As things stand now in the crisis-swamped district, MALDEF just might get what it wants. The school district is represented in its legal fight against MALDEF by two people who opposed Proposition 227 — board President Genethia Hayes and board counsel Vilma Martinez.
Rather than stand up to MALDEFin court, Martinez and Hayes have been meeting with Saenz in settlement talks. If the new school board formally agrees to almost any legal settlement, according to board member Tokofsky, MALDEF would gain a foothold in overseeing the district’s English immersion practices for years to come.
Martinez is a lawyer with Munger, Tolles & Olson, who helped engineer the previous school board’s evasion of Proposition 227 — including Ross’ seeking of waivers for Project MORE, the request for an exemption from teaching children 30 days of intensive English, and the district’s failed lawsuit.
Board President Hayes actually appeared in public in 1998 with MALDEF lawyer Saenz to oppose Unz, calling the measure, “the most devastating piece of legislation for language-minority students in the history of public education in the state. It removes all hope of equitable access to employment, college admission, and success.”
One Hayes associate says Hayes has “put her doubts aside and is going to fight like hell to follow the law.” Martinez did not return phone calls seeking her comment.
Critics point out the unsettling parallel between assigning Hayes and Martinez to fight on behalf of Proposition 227 in settlement talks and putting Forrest Ross and his staff of English-immersion opponents in charge of the English-immersion program.
“Must be pretty cozy in there, with anti-227 Vilma Martinez standing up to anti-227 Tom Saenz,” says Callaghan, the Skid Row priest. ” It’s another classic problem of letting the fox guard the henhouse. It just makes me wonder if these little kids will ever win one.”
For people like Sherri Annis, who ran the English for the Children campaign for Unz, the battle in Los Angeles may not end until parents start suing school principals and individual downtown bureaucrats, as allowed under Proposition 227.
“At this point, no parent wants to be that first family who demands an equal education in English for their child and puts their family in the camera glare,” says Annis. “It took a long time for the Brown family to emerge from all the angry families who struggled before Brown vs. the Board of Education. It is easy to understand why immigrant parents are holding back.”
Annis fears that nothing short of parental lawsuits will change L.A. Unified. Board member Tokofsky concedes: “Nobody in the bureaucracy ever criticizes the thousands of waivers or Model B — it’s always full-on defense and denial that anything but immersion is going on.”
Last month, the California English Immersion Conference was held near LAX, featuring several researchers and experts offering ways to comply with the new law. The conference drew 200 concerned school district administrators, teachers, and policymakers from all over California — but not a soul attended from the massive L.A. bureaucracy.
The no-show by L.A. Unified at the READ Institute’s English Immersion conference drew a laugh from Ken Noonan, the Latino superintendent of the Oceanside public schools. Cofounder of CABE but no longer a member, Noonan has instituted full English immersion for his entire population of English-limited students. Test scores have shot up in the year since they went all-English.
“L.A. is in a world of its own,” says Noonan. “Don’t blame the bilingual teachers, because they are great people. Blame the bilingual-industrial complex.”
Within L.A. Unified, Deputy Superintendent Liliam Castillo is the only top player who is viewed as having undergone a major upheaval in her views about how to educate Latino immigrants. Some observers say Castillo appears to be nearly ready to buck the district’s old bilingual hierarchy.
“Liliam says she is willing to take hits on some of these issues, but we will have to see,” says one high-ranking education reformer who has worked with her. “Particularly on the issue of providing basic English skills to Latino children, she has altered her views radically — and you don’t see that too often in adults.”
But another insider says Castillo is merely a savvy political animal who talks the talk of reform, but has made no changes in the rigid bureaucracy she oversees.
This insider dubiously says, “When it comes to actually reforming what teachers are doing in the classrooms, Liliam Castillo and Ruben Zacarias play good cop/bad cop. Ruben often says, ‘Liliam is really great, but she’s just too busy to make big changes,’ and Liliam often says, ‘Ruben is great, but he’s too busy to make big changes.’ I’m glad they like each other. Now please do something!”
Perhaps the worst condemnation comes from a top official who has been inside dozens of L.A. schools watching the bureaucratic resistance to English immersion. That official says Castillo has admitted to “widespread problems” in which children are denied the chance at true English immersion.
But, the official says, “Liliam Castillo says the whole place is in such disarray that the anti-immersion crowd has stepped into the power vacuum, and nothing can be done right now.”
Certainly, the reformist school board, swamped with crises, including the Belmont Learning Center debate and the buyout of Zacarias, is not minding the store when it comes to English immersion.
Board member Tokofsky, usually on top of curriculum issues, simply admits: “I have no idea what is going on in classrooms since Unz was approved. I could just kick myself in the head for not spending two days a week since we got the grand jury report, popping into classrooms to see this Model B for myself.”
New board member Lansing, a longtime teacher and administrator in the private school system, bristles upon hearing that some top administrators may have privately written off thousands of limited English grade-schoolers now stuck in various forms of Spanish.
“We, on the board, should be making policy, not digging around in the management and demanding that they follow California law,” says Lansing. “But it looks like we will have to dig around and see who and what is involved. I can’t even guess what we will find.”
One thing, however, is certain. With Forrest Ross retiring this month, the bilingual forces that have long controlled how to teach English to L.A.’s immigrant children are readying his successor to the throne.