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This national war had its beginnings in the 1970s, when Southern California's emerging Chicano voices spoke openly of being mistreated by teachers in the 1950s and '60s, forced to speak English and belittled on the playground. Elected to office, they pledged that Mexican-American and immigrant children would not be humiliated.
Their passion sparked a costly, many say tragic, experiment known as "bilingual education." Ignoring Europe's multilingual success with immigrants, which — with some exceptions — is achieved by immersing newcomers in reading and writing classes in the host-country language, California plunged millions of children into primarily Spanish classes. Many teachers with often-poor English skills were hired from Central America.
Although a Los Angeles Times editorial recently wrongly claimed that immersion English took hold in L.A. right after California voters strongly rejected bilingual education, in fact, many bilingual teachers, coordinators and principals failed to comply. Then, in 2001, 17 percent of 244,000 English learners in LAUSD scored "advanced" or "early advanced" on their statewide English tests — a disaster. But slowly, change took hold. Under English immersion and other reforms, by 2005, 49 percent of English learners in LAUSD scored "advanced" or "early advanced" on their English tests. Last year, the figure was about 45 percent.
It's been a spectacular jump in English fluency, unlike anything seen during decades of California "bilingual" education. But the old-school methods enjoy popularity among those who still believe that California teachers and schools "did it wrong," didn't spend enough money implementing the bilingual theory, and didn't give the old ideas enough time.
Today, California spends $1 billion on aid and materials for English learners from the 2009-10 state education budget of about $44 billion — most of it focused on teaching English, not Spanish. Despite big budget cutbacks to California schools — aid to English learners was $1.2 billion as recently as 2008 — LAUSD isn't exactly broke. It has loads of money for capital projects and is pouring it into glitzy, deluxe new schools, despite a vanishing student population, which stood at 747,000 seven years ago, and has fallen to 617,000.
The LAUSD Board of Education is being pilloried for its new, stunning $572 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools— costing $135,000 per student — and whose top-end architectural flourishes commemorate the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and Ambassador Hotel, which once stood on the site.
Now, these two trends seem to be coming together: LAUSD's splashy expenditures on bricks and mortar, and the old-school battle to keep the flame alive for California-style bilingual education. Alice Callaghan has a bird's-eye view of it from her plain but vibrant storefront school on Skid Row.
Over the years, Callaghan, who describes herself as "one of those knee-jerk liberals who supported bilingual education," has spent hundreds of hours researching the best ways to teach English fluency and mathematics. But just blocks away, at Ninth Street, LAUSD's staff has become locked in the old ways.
The teachers, some of them acolytes of once-popular bilingual theoretician Stephen Krashen — who never taught young immigrant children to read or write English yet became the bilingual movement's Pied Piper — resisted teaching reading and writing in English. About the same time, when the LAUSD school board in 1999 ordered its worst schools to resume teaching phonics and grammar — which many L.A. schools had downplayed in the 1990s thanks to a fad known as "whole language" — Ninth Street balked again.