Educating Maria

On L.A.'s Skid Row, a generational war over how to teach the American children of illegal immigrants

Educating Maria

On a recent afternoon inside the bustling day-care center Las Familias del Pueblo in downtown's Skid Row, Alice Callaghan heads toward a ringing phone. The middle-aged Episcopal minister, who was once a Catholic nun, still wears a kind of religious uniform that's both pragmatic and modest: a khaki skirt cut below her knees, gray running sneakers and a white shirt. Her sleeves are rolled up, a mark of Callaghan's hands-on approach to helping the illegal-immigrant families who enroll their kids at her center.

Callaghan, who has dedicated her life to assisting the mostly rural villagers who somehow find their way from Mexico and other Central American countries to the sweatshop or parking-attendant jobs downtown, picks up the phone and takes a seat on a black stool. The caller is a mother who wants to enroll her child in a charter school Callaghan founded for kindergarten and first-grade students, many of whom are the American-born sons and daughters of garment workers.

The parents, who spend their days working, drop off their kids at 7 or 8 a.m. and return at night. Word has gotten around about Callaghan's day care and charter school under the same roof in a converted storefront on 7th Street. She gets calls once or twice a week.

"They don't want their kids selling tamales. They want college." — The Rev. Alice Callaghan, Jardin de la Infancia
Ted Soqui
"They don't want their kids selling tamales. They want college." — The Rev. Alice Callaghan, Jardin de la Infancia
First-grade teacher Elizabeth Chavez at the whiteboard with Leslie Alvarez in the all-English class.
Ted Soqui
First-grade teacher Elizabeth Chavez at the whiteboard with Leslie Alvarez in the all-English class.

"I'm sorry," Callaghan says, "but we're full. We do have a waiting list, though."

A few feet away, two classes of 20 students each are separated by a mobile partition. The young students, some missing their baby teeth, quietly listen to their teachers as they learn the meanings and pronunciations of English words. They are not bored. Their parents have very little education, some are illiterate, and many are monolingual in Spanish. But thanks to taking kindergarten at Callaghan's school, the first-graders speak fluent, largely unaccented English, and Callaghan holds classes in English. When a teacher asks a question, little hands excitedly wave in the air as the children, who speak mostly Spanish at home, wait to be called on.

"Every time I look at these kids," says Callaghan, gazing at them, "if they went to a bad school, they would not have a future. But they can do anything."

For Callaghan and her small staff, the turning point was in 2004, when they stopped battling the Los Angeles Unified School District and opened the charter school Jardin de la Infancia, or Garden of the Infant.

She no longer constantly calls the Ninth Street Elementary School — located nine blocks away on bleak South Towne Avenue — on behalf of concerned parents to ask the principal to stop dumbing down their children's math, reading, writing and other classroom lessons.

Nor does she plead and prod the Ninth Street Elementary School's modest complement of 15 classroom teachers to stop holding back the kindergarten children by giving them too-easy, silly work meant for preschoolers, or to stop insulting the first-graders with classroom material that, over on the city's Westside, and up in the Valley, is handed out to kindergartners.

And no longer do Callaghan and her staff spend long afternoons with the Ninth Street Elementary's undereducated kids, teaching them the fundamentals of math, reading, writing and English skills that the Los Angeles Unified School District has for so long failed to teach.

Today, Jardin de la Infancia teaches a rigorous academic curriculum matched directly to their ages of 4 to 6 years, which includes the very same things bright children are being taught in good schools in suburban Long Beach and the West Valley. Kindergartners and first-graders on the Row are getting an education that emphasizes top-notch skills in mathematics and English reading and writing, and creates a direct route to a magnet elementary school in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Brentwood, if the Eastside parents are willing to let their child travel far across the city each day — and many are.

"We're using the system to work for us," Callaghan says.

In the 1990s, the system nearly silenced her. She was bothered that the children of illegal Latino immigrants — many of them Americans born on L.A.'s poor Eastside — were getting an education based on games, picture books and Spanish. Callaghan spoke out. The United Teachers Los Angeles led by Day Higuchi, the Los Angeles Unified School Board successively led by Mark Slavkin, Jeff Horton and Julie Korenstein, the Latino Caucus of the California State Legislature led by Richard Polanco and the majority of elected Democratic leaders in statewide politics in California were of one voice in dismissing views such as hers.

In those days, liberal Democrats argued that the mostly Mexican illegal-immigrant population was a vulnerable group whose children needed to be kept within the culture by preserving language ties. Whenever fiscally possible, and using bilingual teachers who were paid a $5,000 bonus, immigrant and American children of Latino immigrants were taught to read and write Spanish first.

Many scholars theorized the students would grasp math and history more easily if it too was taught in Spanish. But the grand "bilingual education" experiment failed. For more than two decades, until the early 2000s, Latino students foundered in English, Spanish, math and history.

Adult politics drove much of the ardor behind the movement, which still has passionate supporters — but no longer has its once-hefty financial and political support. When Skid Row parent Lenin Lopez and others in 1996 asked Ninth Street Elementary Principal Eleanor Vargas Page for English-language "state waivers" so Lopez could legally transfer his kids from "bilingual" classes to learn reading and writing in English, the principal and the school's powerful "bilingual-education coordinator" threw up roadblocks.

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