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Educating Maria

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It was the same kind of attitude Callaghan ran into in the years following the parent boycott. But Callaghan points out, "Most of the kids were born here. They see themselves as Americans."

She adds, "Our families have no interest in bilingual education. They don't want their kids selling tamales on the corner. It was always very clear to them. For the poor, they want to be a part of society. They want their kids to go to college. They want their kids to succeed."

Jessica Fuentes, a former Ninth Street student who as a little girl took part in the boycott and attended Callaghan's day-care center, is now a sophomore at Cal State L.A., where she's studying nursing. Her parents came from Mexico, and her mother worked as a seamstress in downtown L.A.'s gritty, often unforgiving garment district.

Her mother always wanted her child to read, write and speak in English. "It's the main language of this country," Fuentes says. But the college student has not forgotten how to speak Spanish, and usually talks with her parents in that language. Asked about the importance of maintaining her Latino heritage by speaking Spanish, Fuentes says, "That's up to the family. Some families let that go because they want to be Americans. If it's really important to the parents to keep those roots and that heritage, they'll still speak in Spanish."

Parents at Las Familias del Pueblo today feel the same way, believing the only way for their children to succeed in the United States is to learn English, and to become fluent.

Maria Tzul, a young mother of a kindergarten student at Jardin de la Infancia, who came to L.A. from Guatemala and works as a cashier at a downtown restaurant, says, "You need to speak English. Most of the jobs I've gone to say you need to speak English. People say no, and they don't get that job." Tzul already is thinking about her son's future. "I would like for him to go to high school and college. He'll have a better chance of getting a good job and getting better-paid."

Maria Bueno, who came to L.A. from Mexico and works in downtown's garment district, has one child at Jardin de la Infancia and another who went through the charter school and now takes the long bus ride each weekday to Paul Revere Middle School in Brentwood. For Bueno, a good education, with a knowledge of written and spoken English, "prepares them for the future." The mother says through a translator, "It's important for them to learn the language of this country. If you want better jobs, you need to learn English."

Joseph and her colleagues understood all of these issues were at stake. They hung tough and got most of what they wanted in terms of English-language standards, but CABE was quick to deliver political payback. The Democratic-majority state Legislature wouldn't confirm Joseph's renomination to the state Board of Education, so she was forced to resign in 2003. Another reformer standing for confirmation in 2005, Netflix founder and charter-schools advocate Reed Hastings, was shunted aside for holding similar views.

Today, Joseph remains convinced that California's brand of bilingual education does much more harm than good. Says Joseph, "The rigorous standards set up by California, which are considered around the country to be among the best, were meant to be met by all children."

On the hard-luck streets of Skid Row, the construction of the new Ninth Street elementary and middle-school complex is an exciting project for everyone involved. Para Los Niños says it will contribute somewhere around $12 million and operate a middle school in conjunction with the school district. Monica Garcia will pony up $4 million from her discretionary account, filled with voter-approved bond money — every LAUSD board member has such a fund. The district will provide various construction-bond monies to reach the $54 million total.

Para Los Niños has done important work for poor children and their families downtown for decades, providing youth workforce services, mental-health services and after-school programs. Since 2002, Para Los Niños, which serves the same population of poor, Spanish-speaking children who attend Callaghan's Jardin de la Infancia, has operated a charter school downtown. Starting with one kindergarten class, the school has expanded to the sixth grade.

Para Los Niños spokeswoman Elena Stern doesn't talk about Ninth Street Elementary's failures the way Alice Callaghan does. Instead, she says LAUSD schools are "overcrowded" and "children get lost." Stern is enthusiastic about opening a middle school, especially when it comes to Para Los Niños' "innovative, inquiry-based" approach to the curriculum known as Reggio Emilia.

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Patrick Range McDonald

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