Little Wallets with Legs

An activist ex-nun is fighting the school district's notion that Latino pupils must read and write in Spanish, not English

I squint hard and focus all my attention on a vortex of yelping, screaming, whirling kids who’ve spent the summer playing lung Olympics and learning their alphabet within the chaotic wonderland of Alice Callaghan’s Skid Row day care center, Las Familias del Pueblo.

But try as I might to see these children as political pawns, I am forced to accept the fact that the figures wriggling on the playground before me are mere children–tiny, giggling, Latino children with dark, laughing eyes.

September 11, as these kids are proudly aware, they will return to class at their Ninth Street grade school just down the street to learn English. Under an agreement so radical for L.A. that it won prominent mention in The Wall Street Journal, the Spanish-speaking parents won the right in May to place the children in regular English classes, not in the troubled Spanish-only reading and writing program that currently passes for bilingual education in the L.A. Unified School District.

The honchos at L.A. Unified are not exactly happy for the kids, because district bureaucrats no longer see them as children. L.A. Unified school board members Vicky Castro and Mark Slavkin, for instance, see Latino children as politics and money–state of California bilingual money, which flows freely toward L.A. Unified’s fiefdom builders as long as Latino grade-schoolers are forced to read and write in Spanish instead of in English.

Teach them in English, and good-bye bilingual money.

Ninth Street School principal Eleanor Vargas doesn’t see them as kids either but as “enhanced enrollments”–enhanced with teaching assistants and classroom materials for every extra Latino child that the school decides should be taught to read and write in Spanish instead of in English. Transfer too many kids into English, and good-bye teaching assistants.

Bilingual teachers at Ninth Street–who get $5,000 extra for teaching bilingual instead of English–apparently don’t see kids, either; they see naive young minds who need to understand that Spanish takes precedence over English because Spanish protects ethnicity. Teach too many kids English literacy and hello assimilation.

It seems that everybody–except Callaghan and the parents of Las Familias–looks at these kids as little wallets with legs.

So last spring, Callaghan and the parents decided to force the school board, the principal, and the teachers to see the kids as just children. They boycotted Principal Vargas and her teachers at Ninth Street School, keeping 90 children home for a week in protest of the school’s long-standing failure to provide reading and writing lessons in English.

In a response that hinted at the vaudevillian absurdities to come, school officials attempted to break California law by suddenly requiring that the immigrant parents attend special “counseling” sessions before English classes could be granted to their children.

Recalls Callaghan: “When we told the principal that the counseling sessions were going to intimidate the parents and that counseling couldn’t be legally mandated by the school, the principal delivered a truly incredible line. She actually said that the counseling sessions were just an opportunity–a mandatory opportunity.”

Next, L.A. Unified administrators tried to vilify Callaghan–a rather unassailable figure, as a former Catholic nun, now an Episcopal priest, who has devoted her life to Skid Row. District bureaucrats sent an operative, incognito, to a town-hall meeting at Las Familias between parents and Ninth Street School officials in a failed attempt to catch Callaghan on audiotape “whipping up” the “naive” parents.

Then manipulative and edgy Board of Education member Castro agreed to appear on KCET’s Life & Times talk show. However, when Castro learned that she would be debating both Callaghan and a Ninth Street parent, Lenin Lopez, she attempted to force Lopez into the background by telling Life & Times she didn’t want to debate both people.

“When Vicky Castro realized that the producers left the choice up to me and I selected Lenin to do the debate, she just sat there stammering,” Callaghan snorts with delight, in a most un-nunlike moment. “Here she is on TV, a leftist yuppie Latina official faced with a Mexican parent who tells her it’s stupid to make Mexican children learn Spanish in America.”

Lopez still savors that night. “I just kept saying to Miss Castro that if the school won’t teach my children reading and writing in English, how can they learn it? It’s so simple. And the longer you wait, the less the children can learn. Can’t she see that? Ms. Castro had arguments, but none were real.”

As the feud between Las Familias and the district heated up, two of the board of education’s commission appointees–most of whom win their positions by raising campaign funds for school board members–approached the members of Callaghan’s own board of directors in a back-door attempt to paint her as an English-only radical.

Bob Carlson, a partner in the law firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and a board member at Las Familias, got a call from one board of education appointee who, he recalled, declared that Callaghan “was being very destructive and was giving aid and comfort to the English Only movement.”

After several pitifully lame tactics against the Las Familias parents and Callaghan failed, Principal Vargas came up with a humorous document that purported to show that Ninth Street School didn’t need to switch to English because it was already teaching 90 percent of the school day in English–as long as one counted such hours as recess, lunch, and home room as “English instruction.”

When Callaghan sought help from less-radical district figures such as board member Slavkin and LEARN official Judy Burton–who is supposed to be reforming bottomed-out schools–both officials airily dismissed the fight for English being waged by the parents and Callaghan. Burton refused to back the parents, and the slippery Slavkin dismissed the controversy, writing that it “would be inappropriate for the Board of Education to intervene.” This even though the board had long been meddling like a malevolent in-law.

Just before school let out for the summer, the tide finally turned. Callaghan had heard earlier from Mayor Richard Riordan, a critic of bilingual education who often opposes Callaghan on issues involving Skid Row. “The mayor called and said, ‘Alice, it’s incredible that we finally agree on an issue,'” recalls Callaghan. “I mean, the last time I saw the mayor I was holding a sit-in in his office to protest his homeless policy.” The two agreed that Las Familias needed a pro bono attorney, and Riordan quickly found them one.

With the help of hotshot business litigator John Quinn of Riordan’s law firm, Riordan & McKinzie, the Las Familias parents spelled out their position to school officials: California law quite plainly guarantees an education in English for any child whose parent requests it. Says Quinn: “There are no clauses about schools being able to require counseling sessions of the parents. You can’t do it. Period. To his credit, the district’s lawyer very quickly saw this, and we didn’t have to take them to court.”

In the end, earnest people like Lopez and his children won, and political climbers like Castro, Vargas, and Slavkin lost. This week, of the 400 kids enrolled at Ninth Street School, more than half will attend English reading and writing classes for the first time–a school record.

But the controversy has revealed the repressive nature of the current bilingual movement, which has devolved into a system in which English reading and writing skills are denied to Spanish-speaking children until the third or fourth grade–too late for most to catch up. Bilingual education produces the vast majority of L.A.’s dropouts and denies many Spanish-speaking kids a serious shot at college. Latino fourth-graders in California today rank dead last in English reading and writing scores among Latinos nationwide, beating only the Latinos in Guam, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Says Callaghan: “I see powerful Latinos like Vicky Castro, who were forced to learn English as children and who then as adults fought for Chicano rights and won the right to bilingual education–now they’re creating generations of car washers and maids who will never get the English training that Castro herself probably benefited from.”

When the children of Las Familias go back to school September 11, the significance of the bitter political wars over bilingual education will escape them. They are simply thrilled about learning to read and write such unfamiliar English words as apple, boat, and cat, yet they will be surrounded by educators who only begrudgingly want to teach them English.

Lopez says that he and the other parents “will be watching Ninth Street School.” Unfortunately, there are close to 100 badly failing bilingual schools in the city’s vast, unfixable system, and each one needs gutsy, outspoken immigrant parents like Lopez and unapologetic, politically incorrect fighters like Callaghan. And at least so far, the scrappers of Las Familias have proved unique.

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