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Educating Maria

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But it's the kind of education Callaghan and the immigrant parents at Las Familias del Pueblo fought against because it didn't work.

Para Los Niños' embrace of trends from past decades has yet to produce lasting academic results. The existing charter school's statewide test scores are not good, and it received a poor 2 out of 10 from the Great Schools Web site partly funded by Bill Gates. Great Schools gave the same bad ranking of 2 to Ninth Street. (Brentwood Science, where Callaghan sends many pupils, got an 8.)

And Para Los Niños was also given a 2 in the "similar schools" ranking statewide in 2009, after earning a solid 7 the previous year.

Callaghan has been begging California state officials to test her Jardin charter-school kindergarten and first-grade students on how well they read, write and do their arithmetic — and by extension, on how much they love school — but the state of California doesn't test children in any greade before second.

When Ninth Street reopens in 2013, it seems the adults in charge are preparing to repeat the political and education wars over immigrant students that have been fought on Skid Row for decades.

It's lunchtime at Jardin de la Infancia, where first-grade and kindergarten students sit at round tables next to jammed bookshelves, eating sandwiches and sipping from juice boxes. The classroom is calm and relatively quiet, and Callaghan sits a few feet away, keeping an eye on the children and making sure they don't skip lunch.

These days, Callaghan doesn't think too much about the public school down the street, where kids from her day-care center went to school for years and returned to Las Familias del Pueblo to complete their homework. Callaghan and her staff acted as tutors, consistently noticing that the assigned English and math lessons were well below what the kids could handle.

Says Callaghan, "It's a terrible school. Nobody can get a good education there. We have to send our kids all the way across town to Brentwood."

Callaghan and Zuzy Chavez, the director of Jardin de la Infancia, came upon Brentwood Science Magnet School — a spacious, tree-filled campus that sits across from Brentwood Country Club and near the neighborhood's upscale shopping district on San Vicente Boulevard — after meticulously researching the top magnet schools in Los Angeles. It's the kind of extra effort the two women undertake at their charter school.

Before Jardin de la Infancia opened, Chavez and Callaghan looked for the best way to teach math. They found that South Pasadena Unified School District's approach delivered standout results, so Callaghan and Chavez went with a heavily research-based program called Saxon Math — a math book whose use was fought by UTLA, and which was kept out of most LAUSD schools by angry teachers who denounced it as "drill and kill" and too hard for children from poor backgrounds.

The book teaches core mathematical skills. "The students are working on [math] word problems every day," Chavez says.

The two women learned that if students couldn't write well, school could become an instant turnoff. "If they're struggling to simply write," Chavez says, "that'll be the first thing to frustrate them." They found a program called "Handwriting Without Tears." Chavez says writing is never a problem at the school.

Jardin de la Infancia also uses "Open Court," a well-regarded program that teaches phonics, sounding out words and other systematic word-recognition and "word attack" skills.

Unlike the administrators at the Para Los Niños charter school, Callaghan does not tell parents that children entering kindergarten or the first grade should first learn in Spanish until they improve their English-language skills. Actually, it's much the opposite.

"Until you teach them in English," Callaghan says, "you're not getting anywhere. You need to learn English as early as possible, or else you're always translating words in your head and not truly grasping the lesson."

Marion Joseph, who sat on the California Board of Education between 1997 and 2003, when the wars between various English-learning camps were breaking out, agrees. Says Joseph, "We know that English learners, if you get them at kindergarten or first grade, they will quickly know English." Joseph says it's crucial for a student's long-term academic success to not delay the learning of English reading and writing skills.

She says the warm-sounding idea that kids were learning to read and write in both Spanish and English and maintaining fluency in both was a farce. Children were actually getting few, if any, English skills, she says. "You had kids graduating from high school with no knowledge of English."

Joseph and other board members met strong resistance to English immersion from the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE), a nonprofit group that's been pushing bilingual education since 1976. "You'd hear how poor Latino kids wouldn't be able to talk in Spanish with their parents and grandparents," Joseph says, "and how people would lose their heritage."

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Patrick Range McDonald

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