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"We're using the system to work for us," Callaghan says.
In the 1990s, the system nearly silenced her. She was bothered that the children of illegal Latino immigrants — many of them Americans born on L.A.'s poor Eastside — were getting an education based on games, picture books and Spanish. Callaghan spoke out. The United Teachers Los Angeles led by Day Higuchi, the Los Angeles Unified School Board successively led by Mark Slavkin, Jeff Horton and Julie Korenstein, the Latino Caucus of the California State Legislature led by Richard Polanco and the majority of elected Democratic leaders in statewide politics in California were of one voice in dismissing views such as hers.
In those days, liberal Democrats argued that the mostly Mexican illegal-immigrant population was a vulnerable group whose children needed to be kept within the culture by preserving language ties. Whenever fiscally possible, and using bilingual teachers who were paid a $5,000 bonus, immigrant and American children of Latino immigrants were taught to read and write Spanish first.
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.