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Educating Maria

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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.

Ninth Street parents were made to feel like cultural traitors. English classes failed to materialize. It's hard to imagine igniting a revolution among tired, overworked Skid Row parents who fear the LAPD. The inept, scheming administrators and teachers at LAUSD and UTLA managed it.

A parental boycott of Ninth Street erupted, led by placard-carrying, mostly illegal garment workers. Organized by then–Catholic nun Callaghan — UTLA and bilingual activists from that era still grumble that Callaghan pushed the parents into it — the boycott grabbed headlines nationwide, inspiring the 1998 voter-approved Proposition 227, which forced public schools to teach English reading and writing first, not Spanish.

Each year for the past decade, some 250,000 children whose parents speak a native language other than English — mostly Spanish — entered LAUSD. The district is among the largest educators of English on Earth. Annually, its 33,000 teachers must teach 41 percent of the student body to read and write English.

By contrast, in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, the job is a snap: Fewer than 20 percent of students' parents in those cities speak a language other than English. Yet those cities and the 50 states struggle with a hodgepodge of mostly ineffective "English learner" programs. Illinois, Washington, New Mexico, Colorado, New Jersey and Texas still use a bilingual approach borrowed decades ago from California and Florida, which has since been dumped by Massachusetts, Connecticut and California. One solid program common to all states is English as a Second Language.

States use some half-dozen methods for imparting English to children of immigrants, a crazy quilt of efforts that makes the elegant solution used by a rebellious former nun in L.A.'s toughest neighborhood seem all the more obvious: Immerse them in English reading and writing. Instead, the federal government and the states spend in the low billions of dollars churning out millions of struggling, often functionally illiterate immigrant students each year. The teachers unions fight most reformers' efforts to change the old ways.

This national war had its beginnings in the 1970s, when Southern California's emerging Chicano voices spoke openly of being mistreated by teachers in the 1950s and '60s, forced to speak English and belittled on the playground. Elected to office, they pledged that Mexican-American and immigrant children would not be humiliated.

Their passion sparked a costly, many say tragic, experiment known as "bilingual education." Ignoring Europe's multilingual success with immigrants, which — with some exceptions — is achieved by immersing newcomers in reading and writing classes in the host-country language, California plunged millions of children into primarily Spanish classes. Many teachers with often-poor English skills were hired from Central America.

Although a Los Angeles Times editorial recently wrongly claimed that immersion English took hold in L.A. right after California voters strongly rejected bilingual education, in fact, many bilingual teachers, coordinators and principals failed to comply. Then, in 2001, 17 percent of 244,000 English learners in LAUSD scored "advanced" or "early advanced" on their statewide English tests — a disaster. But slowly, change took hold. Under English immersion and other reforms, by 2005, 49 percent of English learners in LAUSD scored "advanced" or "early advanced" on their English tests. Last year, the figure was about 45 percent.

It's been a spectacular jump in English fluency, unlike anything seen during decades of California "bilingual" education. But the old-school methods enjoy popularity among those who still believe that California teachers and schools "did it wrong," didn't spend enough money implementing the bilingual theory, and didn't give the old ideas enough time.

Today, California spends $1 billion on aid and materials for English learners from the 2009-10 state education budget of about $44 billion — most of it focused on teaching English, not Spanish. Despite big budget cutbacks to California schools — aid to English learners was $1.2 billion as recently as 2008 — LAUSD isn't exactly broke. It has loads of money for capital projects and is pouring it into glitzy, deluxe new schools, despite a vanishing student population, which stood at 747,000 seven years ago, and has fallen to 617,000.

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Patrick Range McDonald

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