On L.A.'s Skid Row, a generational war over how to teach the American children of illegal immigrants

On a recent afternoon inside the bustling day-care center Las Familias del Pueblo in downtown's Skid Row, Alice Callaghan heads toward a ringing phone. The middle-aged Episcopal minister, who was once a Catholic nun, still wears a kind of religious uniform that's both pragmatic and modest: a khaki skirt cut below her knees, gray running sneakers and a white shirt. Her sleeves are rolled up, a mark of Callaghan's hands-on approach to helping the illegal-immigrant families who enroll their kids at her center.

Callaghan, who has dedicated her life to assisting the mostly rural villagers who somehow find their way from Mexico and other Central American countries to the sweatshop or parking-attendant jobs downtown, picks up the phone and takes a seat on a black stool. The caller is a mother who wants to enroll her child in a charter school Callaghan founded for kindergarten and first-grade students, many of whom are the American-born sons and daughters of garment workers.

The parents, who spend their days working, drop off their kids at 7 or 8 a.m. and return at night. Word has gotten around about Callaghan's day care and charter school under the same roof in a converted storefront on 7th Street. She gets calls once or twice a week.

"They don't want their kids selling tamales. They want college." — Rev. Alice Callaghan, Jardin de la Infancia
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
"They don't want their kids selling tamales. They want college." — Rev. Alice Callaghan, Jardin de la Infancia
First-grade teacher Elizabeth Chavez at the whiteboard with Leslie Alvarez in the all-English class.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
First-grade teacher Elizabeth Chavez at the whiteboard with Leslie Alvarez in the all-English class.
Teacher Emma Hernandez helps Melvin Utuy while newcomer Adrian Bautista works quietly on his own.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
Teacher Emma Hernandez helps Melvin Utuy while newcomer Adrian Bautista works quietly on his own.
Kindergarten student Yslen Navarro loves learning her letters.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
Kindergarten student Yslen Navarro loves learning her letters.
Reverend Callaghan teaches sentence structure to first-graders Danielle Trinidad (left) and Angel Otamendi.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
Reverend Callaghan teaches sentence structure to first-graders Danielle Trinidad (left) and Angel Otamendi.
First-grader Daniela Saquich, already fluent in English, writes a rhyme she liked in her book.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
First-grader Daniela Saquich, already fluent in English, writes a rhyme she liked in her book.

"I'm sorry," Callaghan says, "but we're full. We do have a waiting list, though."

A few feet away, two classes of 20 students each are separated by a mobile partition. The young students, some missing their baby teeth, quietly listen to their teachers as they learn the meanings and pronunciations of English words. They are not bored. Their parents have very little education, some are illiterate, and many are monolingual in Spanish. But thanks to taking kindergarten at Callaghan's school, the first-graders speak fluent, largely unaccented English, and Callaghan holds classes in English. When a teacher asks a question, little hands excitedly wave in the air as the children, who speak mostly Spanish at home, wait to be called on.

"Every time I look at these kids," says Callaghan, gazing at them, "if they went to a bad school, they would not have a future. But they can do anything."

For Callaghan and her small staff, the turning point was in 2004, when they stopped battling the Los Angeles Unified School District and opened the charter school Jardin de la Infancia, or Garden of the Infant.

She no longer constantly calls the Ninth Street Elementary School — located nine blocks away on bleak South Towne Avenue — on behalf of concerned parents to ask the principal to stop dumbing down their children's math, reading, writing and other classroom lessons.

Nor does she plead and prod the Ninth Street Elementary School's modest complement of 15 classroom teachers to stop holding back the kindergarten children by giving them too-easy, silly work meant for preschoolers, or to stop insulting the first-graders with classroom material that, over on the city's Westside, and up in the Valley, is handed out to kindergartners.

And no longer do Callaghan and her staff spend long afternoons with the Ninth Street Elementary's undereducated kids, teaching them the fundamentals of math, reading, writing and English skills that the Los Angeles Unified School District has for so long failed to teach.

Today, Jardin de la Infancia teaches a rigorous academic curriculum matched directly to their ages of 4 to 6 years, which includes the very same things bright children are being taught in good schools in suburban Long Beach and the West Valley. Kindergartners and first-graders on the Row are getting an education that emphasizes top-notch skills in mathematics and English reading and writing, and creates a direct route to a magnet elementary school in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Brentwood, if the Eastside parents are willing to let their child travel far across the city each day — and many are.

"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.

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.

Callaghan was appalled as the teachers resisted teaching serious math, on top of that. "It was a general level of exceedingly low expectations," she says. "[The principal and teachers] said: 'Woe are these children. They can't learn this stuff.' It was a complete dumbing down."

Test scores and something called "similar schools" rankings reflected what was unfolding at Ninth Street. For a time, under then–Superintendent Roy Romer, Ninth Street adopted a credible math book published by Harcourt, and there was talk that the school's poor teaching might finally be addressed. But when Romer left in 2006, a shaky new era began under School Board President Monica Garcia. Elected to represent the Eastside, Garcia complained bitterly about the unattractive Ninth Street campus — not about the years of second-rate teaching.

California's "similar schools" rankings were created precisely so that school board presidents, principals, teachers and parents could quickly learn how their schools were doing against schools whose student demographics were just like their own. Ninth Street from 2001 to 2008 plummeted to a 1 out of 10 in California.

Simply, it is the worst among demographically disadvantaged, very poor Latino schools like it. Yet in 2001, before Skid Row parents began yanking kids from its dumbed-down classes, Ninth Street was a 10 — the best among poor Latino schools statewide.

Today, incredibly, the school's principal, Anne Barry, who arrived in 2008 and has made no serious changes to its approach, claims the school has no big problems. Instead, she boasts about a new $54 million complex to soon rise on the site. The old school closed down in June so construction can begin.

"In three years," says Barry, a seemingly sincere, well-meaning educator who nonetheless sounds like a member of a downtown L.A. booster club, "we're going to build a brand-new, state-of-the-art school. It is designed to serve this community and those children who are elementary age. I think the school reflects the dynamic and energetic part of this city."

Does it matter that a massive district with a budget of $5.4 billion per year has no idea why a small school on the wrong side of the tracks is at the absolute bottom against schools like it? Does it matter that indigent, illegal immigrant parents hunt down Callaghan and ask for an opening in her small school? Does it matter that the principal has given no thought at all, to the curriculum of a school on which $54 million will be spent to educate an Eastside community LAUSD has failed so completely before?

Principal Barry says she does not pay attention to the "similar schools" ranking, yet the rankings were designed so that people like Monica Garcia and Anne Barry would act promptly, accepting the fact that something is going very wrong inside the classroom. "I don't really know why [the rankings] were higher before," says Barry. "I'm not really sure."

Maureen Diekmann, a director of school services at LAUSD, made the odd admission that she has not looked at Ninth Street's decadelong data trend. LAUSD has no full-time employees researching its voluminous school test scores and ranking data, says L.A. Unified spokeswoman Ellen Morgan. Only four people out of the district's 71,851 employees work primarily on "analysis and reporting of data, including test scores."

Diekmann points to another piece of data, the Academic Performance Index, saying that is the more important score, and it's rising gradually at Ninth Street. In fact, it's somewhat meaningless to see moderate jumps in the so-called API. Since the state Board of Education forced classroom educators to teach more rigorous subject matter a decade ago, almost all California schools have seen a gradual rise in the API.

"Everyone is growing," says Jenny Singh, a consultant to the California Department of Education.

Judy Burton, president of the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, says the drop in Ninth Street's "similar schools" ranking from 10 to 1 should "sound an alarm."

Burton, who has opened charter schools in Watts, East L.A., downtown, South Los Angeles and several suburbs, says of Barry's and Diekmann's denials, "If anyone who looks at the [school's rankings] and doesn't see that's a problem, then therein lies the problem." Bill Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a nationally recognized expert in K-12 education, calls it "a precipitous fall."

Former LAUSD board president Caprice Young finds the district's disinterest outrageous, saying that Ninth Street's principal, at the very least, "needs to know what causes the drop — and to take the required actions" to fix the school. John Mockler, former executive director of the California Board of Education, who helped to create the rankings system in 1999, says that ignoring the facts about what has happened on Skid Row makes no sense.

"Why would you not look at it?" Mockler asks. "It's a very good tool that acts like a thermometer."

Yet there is no classroom curriculum planning under way to avert academic disaster when the big, gorgeous Ninth Street school opens on Skid Row in 2013 — the fate that befell troubled yet beautiful new nearby schools such as Santee Education Complex and the $232 million High School for the Visual and Performing Arts downtown.

Looking like a marine-life museum with a water slide, and erected despite almost no curriculum planning, the posh Performing Arts school underwent a calamitous first year, and its principal, Suzanne Blake, is being removed. At Santee Complex, near the 10 and 110 freeway junction, more than 40 percent of kids drop out, it has fallen in just five years to the poor "similar school" rank of 2 in California, and LAUSD had so many problems running it that Santee is being operated instead by Antonio Villaraigosa's group, Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

Principal Barry uses language that makes skills-based reformers like Callaghan wince. Like the founding principals at Santee and Performing Arts, Barry is not focused on a rigorous curriculum as a way to fix Ninth Street. "I can't say exactly what those needs will be in three years," she insists, describing her future students.

School Board President Garcia declined to talk about Ninth Street Elementary with the Weekly. She represents the failing school because it falls within the jurisdiction of her downtown and Eastside district seat on the school board. Yet during her tenure she has shown little public interest in the curriculum and academic disaster unfolding there. She has, however, been intensely interested in $54 million in new buildings.

Of that cost, up to $12 million is from the nonprofit Para Los Niños, which will operate a charter school for sixth- through eighth-graders there. According to Diekmann and others, Garcia is outraged that the mostly poor Latino students learn in trailers, with no cafeteria or auditorium.

The campus, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence and looks like a temporary military outpost, could use a face-lift. But the hyperfocus on buildings, and not on what is taught inside, is a frequent failing at LAUSD, where the children of poor and often illegal immigrants tend to be handled as political pawns.

Former LAUSD board member David Tokofsky says the multimillion-dollar project suggests district officials are more concerned with showing off new schools, and the high district dropout rate tells the story. "The district has an edifice complex," says Tokofsky. "Socrates taught under a tree. There are nations that don't have the wealth or school buildings we have, but teach literacy and math well."

Para Los Niños is, however, going to focus on curriculum when Ninth Street Elementary reopens. Andrea Purcell, the organization's director of new schools, tells the Weekly that since the LAUSD school will be a "feeder" into the Para Los Niños–run middle school, she expects her group to be "very involved" with how students at every grade level at Ninth Street are taught. "It is part of the partnerships we will be developing," says Purcell.

Purcell says Para Los Niños, which currently operates an elementary charter school downtown, strongly recommends to immigrant parents that their Spanish-speaking children first be taught in Spanish until their English improves. It will bring that philosophy and an experimental program from Italy called the "Reggio Emilia Approach," which promotes a "self-guided" curriculum.

"We know from the research that it's best to be taught in the first language," Purcell says.

But it's the kind of education Callaghan and the immigrant parents at Las Familias del Pueblo fought against because it didn't work.

Para Los Niños' embrace of trends from past decades has yet to produce lasting academic results. The existing charter school's statewide test scores are not good, and it received a poor 2 out of 10 from the Great Schools Web site partly funded by Bill Gates. Great Schools gave the same bad ranking of 2 to Ninth Street. (Brentwood Science, where Callaghan sends many pupils, got an 8.)

And Para Los Niños was also given a 2 in the "similar schools" ranking statewide in 2009, after earning a solid 7 the previous year.

Callaghan has been begging California state officials to test her Jardin charter-school kindergarten and first-grade students on how well they read, write and do their arithmetic — and by extension, on how much they love school — but the state of California doesn't test children in any greade before second.

When Ninth Street reopens in 2013, it seems the adults in charge are preparing to repeat the political and education wars over immigrant students that have been fought on Skid Row for decades.

It's lunchtime at Jardin de la Infancia, where first-grade and kindergarten students sit at round tables next to jammed bookshelves, eating sandwiches and sipping from juice boxes. The classroom is calm and relatively quiet, and Callaghan sits a few feet away, keeping an eye on the children and making sure they don't skip lunch.

These days, Callaghan doesn't think too much about the public school down the street, where kids from her day-care center went to school for years and returned to Las Familias del Pueblo to complete their homework. Callaghan and her staff acted as tutors, consistently noticing that the assigned English and math lessons were well below what the kids could handle.

Says Callaghan, "It's a terrible school. Nobody can get a good education there. We have to send our kids all the way across town to Brentwood."

Callaghan and Zuzy Chavez, the director of Jardin de la Infancia, came upon Brentwood Science Magnet School — a spacious, tree-filled campus that sits across from Brentwood Country Club and near the neighborhood's upscale shopping district on San Vicente Boulevard — after meticulously researching the top magnet schools in Los Angeles. It's the kind of extra effort the two women undertake at their charter school.

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."

Parents at Las Familias del Pueblo today feel the same way, believing the only way for their children to succeed in the United States is to learn English, and to become fluent.

Maria Tzul, a young mother of a kindergarten student at Jardin de la Infancia, who came to L.A. from Guatemala and works as a cashier at a downtown restaurant, says, "You need to speak English. Most of the jobs I've gone to say you need to speak English. People say no, and they don't get that job." Tzul already is thinking about her son's future. "I would like for him to go to high school and college. He'll have a better chance of getting a good job and getting better-paid."

Maria Bueno, who came to L.A. from Mexico and works in downtown's garment district, has one child at Jardin de la Infancia and another who went through the charter school and now takes the long bus ride each weekday to Paul Revere Middle School in Brentwood. For Bueno, a good education, with a knowledge of written and spoken English, "prepares them for the future." The mother says through a translator, "It's important for them to learn the language of this country. If you want better jobs, you need to learn English."

Joseph and her colleagues understood all of these issues were at stake. They hung tough and got most of what they wanted in terms of English-language standards, but CABE was quick to deliver political payback. The Democratic-majority state Legislature wouldn't confirm Joseph's renomination to the state Board of Education, so she was forced to resign in 2003. Another reformer standing for confirmation in 2005, Netflix founder and charter-schools advocate Reed Hastings, was shunted aside for holding similar views.

Today, Joseph remains convinced that California's brand of bilingual education does much more harm than good. Says Joseph, "The rigorous standards set up by California, which are considered around the country to be among the best, were meant to be met by all children."

On the hard-luck streets of Skid Row, the construction of the new Ninth Street elementary and middle-school complex is an exciting project for everyone involved. Para Los Niños says it will contribute somewhere around $12 million and operate a middle school in conjunction with the school district. Monica Garcia will pony up $4 million from her discretionary account, filled with voter-approved bond money — every LAUSD board member has such a fund. The district will provide various construction-bond monies to reach the $54 million total.

Para Los Niños has done important work for poor children and their families downtown for decades, providing youth workforce services, mental-health services and after-school programs. Since 2002, Para Los Niños, which serves the same population of poor, Spanish-speaking children who attend Callaghan's Jardin de la Infancia, has operated a charter school downtown. Starting with one kindergarten class, the school has expanded to the sixth grade.

Para Los Niños spokeswoman Elena Stern doesn't talk about Ninth Street Elementary's failures the way Alice Callaghan does. Instead, she says LAUSD schools are "overcrowded" and "children get lost." Stern is enthusiastic about opening a middle school, especially when it comes to Para Los Niños' "innovative, inquiry-based" approach to the curriculum known as Reggio Emilia.

"The classroom is the teacher," Stern says. "The child is driving the questions."

Reggio Emilia was created in an affluent Northern Italian city of that name by teacher Loris Malaguzzi, who believed a child must have some control over his learning and that his surrounding "environment" acted as a "third teacher." A teacher is a "co-learner" and the child "self-guides" his curriculum. It's not "traditional education," says Stern, describing it as "avant-garde."

Stern says students at the Para Los Niños charter school take weekly field trips to the garment and flower districts. "They're learning about textures and smells," says Stern. Andrea Purcell, director of new schools at Para Los Niños, notes that teachers have a less prominent role. They don't stand before students, imparting information.

Purcell says elements of Reggio Emilia will be used at the new middle school at Ninth Street, and she expects the elementary school operated by LAUSD to also use aspects of it. Diekmann says the district hasn't discussed it yet but says a "partnership" will definitely exist.

Para Los Niños will also bring to Ninth Street its firm belief that young students should gradually learn English — not be immersed in it — with the first emphasis on Spanish.

At Jardin de la Infancia, things couldn't be more different. Teachers lead students through a carefully crafted instruction plan for learning English literacy and math skills. "The teachers have a model to follow," says Zuzy Chavez, "and the children have to receive the information and build upon what they're learning."

Ronni Ephraim, a veteran educator and now a private consultant, credited with key improvements in some of LAUSD's troubled schools, has never heard of Reggio Emilia. But its theories don't jibe with her philosophy on instruction, especially for young Spanish-speaking students who need to be fluent readers and writers of English, particularly if they are heading to other good schools. Says Ephraim, "The kids need a really good curriculum and teachers who are prepared. That's key."

For Jessica Fuentes, the former student at Ninth Street Elementary who took part in the 1996 boycott, talk about a "self-guided" curriculum where a teacher is a "co-learner" doesn't sound all that realistic or effective.

"It makes me wonder what the slackers will do if the teachers aren't keeping them in line and making them move forward," she says. "For elementary schoolkids who are learning English, they need even more guidance from teachers."

On a recent late afternoon, seventh-grader Fernando Salinas waits for his mother, Maria, to pick him up at Las Familias del Pueblo. Salinas, a handsome boy with a quick smile who was born in the United States, went to Callaghan's charter school and now attends Paul Revere Middle School in Brentwood. At first, he was nervous about that but then took it on as a personal test.

"I like to challenge myself," he says. "If there's not a challenge, I get bored in school. I compete with kids who like a challenge, too."

Salinas took a detour from Callaghan's plan for him, briefly attending John Adams Middle School near USC, but the students were not nearly as motivated. "Sometimes kids didn't care if they did the work or not," he says.

Salinas has big plans — to study to be a doctor or teacher at USC. But he knows he can't accomplish this without a quality education. "I need a good school," Salinas says, "where I'm learning something every day."

Callaghan, who stands only a few feet away, smiles at what she hears. "Our experience is that when our children are offered the same education as their affluent peers, they can achieve in school," she says. "The real hope for the Latino community, and anyone in this country, is a good education."

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