Using a civil rights tactic to further a cause dear to conservatives, dozens of Latino parents have pledged to keep their children out of a downtown Los Angeles elementary school today to protest bilingual education.
It was the reverse image of the last local school boycott organized by Latino students and their parents, in 1968, which sought to secure bilingual education for every public school in East Los Angeles.
The parents poised to boycott, led by Skid Row community activist Alice Callaghan, maintain that their repeated requests for English-only classes at Ninth Street School have been ignored, despite district guidelines that allow parents to choose the language of instruction.
"We want our children to be taught in English . . . that's why we came to the United States," said Jovita Ruiz, a Mexican immigrant whose 7-year-old daughter attends the school. "If not, better to keep her in my country. There she can learn in Spanish."
Those children who do skip school today will be taught at Las Familias del Pueblo, Callaghan's center, where she promised parents "we will speak only English with them."
The objective is to draw Ninth Street School's principal and top district officials to a meeting at Las Familias on Wednesday night. Principal Eleanor Vargas Page has repeatedly volunteered to speak to the group, but Callaghan said she does not believe that the school will change its program without pressure from higher-ups.
School board member Vicky Castro, who represents the Ninth Street area, said district officials have previously met with Callaghan to explain the theories behind Ninth Street's program.
"I think they are getting a response from us, it's just not the response they want," Castro said. "I also feel it's a real disservice to their own children to keep them out of school."
Although extreme measures such as boycotts are rare, groups of Latino parents in Los Angeles are increasingly expressing disillusionment with elementary school bilingual programs, blaming them for their children's poor academic performance as teenagers.
Bilingual education also has been attacked by those who advocate breaking the 660-campus Los Angeles Unified into smaller, more manageable districts.
"I would say 60% of the Latino parents are opposed to bilingual ed," said Larry Galvan, a councilman in Cudahy, one of eight Southeast Los Angeles cities looking into creating a separate school district.
"This [boycott] is fantastic because . . . what usually happens is that they get lost in the bureaucracy," Galvan said. "They want me to go to the schools or the district with them and I can't go with every parent."
When similar requests came to Callaghan, who operates an after-school program at Las Familias del Pueblo, she decided to get involved.
In a series of verbal and written requests to district officials, from the school board president to the principal, Callaghan asked that English-language instruction be offered to Spanish-speaking children at Ninth Street School. The first was a letter sent to board President Mark Slavkin in May, the most recent a petition signed by about 70 parents submitted to the school board in December.
So far, there has been no response beyond the explanatory meeting in November and later promises to look into the situation, Callaghan said.
"That kind of obstinate arrogance, I just can't understand," she said.
Ninth Street's principal sees it differently. From her perspective, fewer than five parents have filed a formal request with the school this year to move their children from the bilingual program to English-only classes.
Vargas Page attributes that to program modifications last year to include more English earlier than before.
"I feel what they want is exactly what we're providing," she said.
Yet last Friday evening, 63 angry parents--whose offspring make up about a quarter of the public school's 460-student enrollment--made their dissatisfaction known by agreeing to stage the boycott.
The parents said that if district officials agree to meet with them, the students will return to school Wednesday morning; if they do not, the boycott is scheduled to continue indefinitely.
"If we can do it one day, we can do it weeks at a time," said Callaghan.
Much of the research on bilingual education calls for starting students in their native language--which in California is usually Spanish--to help them keep pace in academic skills and subjects while gradually learning English.
However, the planned boycott falls in the midst of growing political debate over bilingual education, which last summer led the State Board of Education to soften its 14-year commitment to native-language instruction. Last week, Westminster School District in Orange County became the first to be allowed to teach only in English under the new provisions.
Even Los Angeles Unified, long a backer of native language instruction, is reevaluating its programs with an eye toward moving students more quickly into mainstream English classes.
Times librarian Peter Johnson contributed to this story.