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.

"They don't want their kids selling tamales. They want college." —The Rev. Alice Callaghan, Jardin de la Infancia
"They don't want their kids selling tamales. They want college." —The Rev. Alice Callaghan, Jardin de la Infancia
First-grade teacher Elizabeth Chavez at the whiteboard with Leslie Alvarez in the all-English class
First-grade teacher Elizabeth Chavez at the whiteboard with Leslie Alvarez in the all-English class

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.

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