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.

Teacher Emma Hernandez helps Melvin Utuy while newcomer Adrian Bautista works quietly on his own.
Teacher Emma Hernandez helps Melvin Utuy while newcomer Adrian Bautista works quietly on his own.
Kindergarten student Yslen Navarro loves learning her letters.
Kindergarten student Yslen Navarro loves learning her letters.

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.

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