Bilingual Schooling Is Failing, Parents Say


Las Familias del Pueblo is holding its first parent meeting in 13 years of providing after-school care to the children of garment workers.

Attendance is standing room only.

The subject that has drawn so many to the storefront center after a grueling day in the nearby factories: Bilingual education, is it working for our children?

And the gut feeling of these parents is: No, it is not.

While the debate over bilingual education rages in the halls of academia, it also erupts in venues closer to home and heart. And there, the sentiments do not always jibe with the latest research.


On this night, one father stood from his chair to articulate the quandary.

“A lot of us want our kids to learn Spanish so they can write to their grandpas or whatever,” Lenin Lopez said in Spanish. “But I want my children to learn English so they won’t have the problems that I’ve had.”

The audience of more than 60 parents applauded.

Their children go to Ninth Street School, a Los Angeles Unified campus near downtown’s skid row, where nine in 10 students do not speak English. Last year only six students, about 1%, mastered enough English to test out of the school’s special bilingual classes.

Ninth Street’s principal, Eleanor Vargas Page, considers the dissatisfaction voiced by the Las Familias parents ill-informed.

The school retooled its bilingual program just last year, Vargas Page said, infusing it with more English sooner than ever before. Those changes were a response, she said, to parent concerns as well as a districtwide push to speed the transfer of bilingual program students into the educational mainstream.

English reading now begins in fourth grade and next year Vargas Page hopes to start it in third grade. She gives worried parents a program schedule showing that their children spend most of the school day in English classes, though she concedes that homeroom and recess are counted in the English category.

And, she tells them, teachers report that students are flourishing.

“We know children are already acquiring English as a second language sooner . . . but anyone who wants to see statistics right now, I can’t give them that,” Vargas Page said. “The reality is, we won’t see how well our children gain until five years into the program.”

Such a promise of future rewards does not mollify the parents at Las Familias.

They consider English fluency the key to unlock the handcuffs of poverty, a key they themselves will probably never possess.

By crossing the border into the United States, they thought that they had secured that benefit for their offspring. But watching their children continue to struggle in English, year after year, has made them lose faith in the American education system.

They file their children past a visitor to prove their point.

“Say something in English,” one mother prods her 9-year-old son.

“Animaniacs,” the fourth-grader says, smiling. Can he write in English? He asks to have the question repeated, then answers, “No.” Read? “A little.”

These parents maintain that the elementary school has been unwilling to heed their requests for all-English instruction. Vargas Page said she has simply tried to explain the theories behind the existing program.

Programs such as Ninth Street’s are based on research that favors giving immigrant students a strong base in their native language before immersing them in English. Although some other studies have advocated faster immersion in English, the most recent national study suggests that keeping students in native-language classes for at least five years gives them a better foundation for future academic success.

Beyond theory, Vargas Page cites the practical difficulties of separating some students for alternative programs in English on her 460-pupil campus.

“We don’t have enough students to fill up [English immersion] classes at each grade level,” Vargas Page said. “I might have to have four grade levels in one room.”

Leading the parents’ cause is Sister Alice Callahan, who founded Las Familias as part of her mission to help the poor and homeless.

She is heartened by the fact that Ninth Street School is part of the district’s LEARN reform program, which aims to give teachers, parents and community leaders voices in campus administration.

Judy Burton, the district’s top LEARN administrator, said she will meet with parents, administrators and Callahan later this month to try to determine if adjustments to the school’s bilingual program are needed.

Under the district’s current bilingual education plan, parents have the right to request English immersion classes for their children, Burton acknowledged, but school representatives also have the duty to explain why they think their approach is better.

“There’s a dilemma when you have two different opinions of what the best approach is and they are such strong opinions,” Burton said.

And though bilingual research findings are being cited by both sides, Los Angeles Unified has no data of its own on which teaching approach has worked best.

The district’s high student transiency rate and its inadequate computer system make it impossible to track individual students or even groups of students to validate either the native-language classes that the school offers or the English immersion approach that Callahan and her parent group favor.

So Callahan relies on personal observation, and the broken English that she hears among the immigrant children in her charge.

Over the years, she has become increasingly alarmed because the Ninth Street students who spend afternoons at her center do all their homework in Spanish, she said.

They pick up spoken English from other children and television. But without formal instruction in reading or writing English, Callahan fears that they have no way of developing good grammar or a broad vocabulary, or preparing for middle school or college entrance exams.

“What we know is the bilingual system was intended to help children learn another language, and maybe it works in some places,” Callahan said. “But we know our children are not learning to read and write in English. . . . And poor kids don’t have the luxury of catching up later on.”

Standing quietly in a corner as Callahan speaks is Moises Negrete, 16, who comes to Las Familias most afternoons for tutoring. He has attended Los Angeles Unified schools since kindergarten, including several years in the Ninth Street bilingual program. He lobbied his way into a magnet high school and now is fighting not to flunk out.

“I can read, but I can’t understand what I am reading,” he said, looking at his feet. “They never showed me the vocabulary I need now.”