How to teach the American children of illegal immigrants

Educating Maria 

How to teach the American children of illegal immigrants

Page 7 of 9

Before Jardin de la Infancia opened, Chavez and Callaghan looked for the best way to teach math. They found that South Pasadena Unified School District's approach delivered standout results, so Callaghan and Chavez went with a heavily research-based program called Saxon Math — a math book whose use was fought by UTLA, and which was kept out of most LAUSD schools by angry teachers who denounced it as "drill and kill" and too hard for children from poor backgrounds.

The book teaches core mathematical skills. "The students are working on [math] word problems every day," Chavez says.

The two women learned that if students couldn't write well, school could become an instant turnoff. "If they're struggling to simply write," Chavez says, "that'll be the first thing to frustrate them." They found a program called "Handwriting Without Tears." Chavez says writing is never a problem at the school.

Jardin de la Infancia also uses "Open Court," a well-regarded program that teaches phonics, sounding out words and other systematic word-recognition and "word attack" skills.

Unlike the administrators at the Para Los Niños charter school, Callaghan does not tell parents that children entering kindergarten or the first grade should first learn in Spanish until they improve their English-language skills. Actually, it's much the opposite.

"Until you teach them in English," Callaghan says, "you're not getting anywhere. You need to learn English as early as possible, or else you're always translating words in your head and not truly grasping the lesson."

Marion Joseph, who sat on the California Board of Education between 1997 and 2003, when the wars between various English-learning camps were breaking out, agrees. Says Joseph, "We know that English learners, if you get them at kindergarten or first grade, they will quickly know English." Joseph says it's crucial for a student's long-term academic success to not delay the learning of English reading and writing skills.

She says the warm-sounding idea that kids were learning to read and write in both Spanish and English and maintaining fluency in both was a farce. Children were actually getting few, if any, English skills, she says. "You had kids graduating from high school with no knowledge of English."

Joseph and other board members met strong resistance to English immersion from the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE), a nonprofit group that's been pushing bilingual education since 1976. "You'd hear how poor Latino kids wouldn't be able to talk in Spanish with their parents and grandparents," Joseph says, "and how people would lose their heritage."

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."

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