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Not Quite Trilingual

Publication Date: 2010-11-22

Kids in a first grade English immersion class read all day. They read decodables with sentences like this: Paul hauls prawns at dawn in his yawl.

This is from Macarthur Park Media and is available in print and audio. It is exceptional reporting.

Andrea is the perfect product of public schools: She is more interested in tests than books; she can read, but sheâs far from knowing what any of the words mean.



Note: This story â" about language, about words, and ultimately about voice â" was designed with audio in mind. Please either download the entire piece (link below) to later listen to in the car (itâs long!) or you are welcome to play the piece in chapters here while following along with the script.

Chapter 1: I Speak Spanish, English, and Kanjobal


Like so many students that I'd taught in Los Angeles, Andrea could speak three languages.

Andrea: I speak Spanish, English, and Kanjobal.

At the time she said this, a little more than two years ago, in 2008, we both thought it was true. And in some ways, it was true. Andrea spoke Spanish with her brother and sisters at home, and with her friends at school.

Andrea and Marcia: Limonada con helada.

She spoke Spanish and Kanjobal â" which is a Mayan language â" with her parents, both of whom are from Guatemala.

Andrea: Patte means tortillas. And ubal means like â" those little thingies, frijoles.
Devin: Beans.
Andrea: Yeah, beans.

And she spoke English in class with me, the fifth first-grade teacher she'd had that year.

Andrea: Mount . . . Rushmore.

Then one day, it became clear that this was only sort of true â" that in fact, Andrea could only sort of speak Spanish and only sort of speak English and really knew just a couple of words in Kanjobal. This day was the day we held parent-teacher conferences, which in Los Angeles public schools, are really student-parent-teacher conferences, student-led and student-directed with the idea being this helps students take more ownership over their school work.

So we prepared the room. The kids rehearsed what to say. And then, when their parents came into the classroom, the kids couldn't say anything. It was as if they were at a total loss. Mostly, they went to all the designated points on the classroom tour and tried a few times to explain where they were or what they did there before getting very quiet and giving up. Next door, another first-grade teacher, Nikki Reich, saw more or less the same thing.

Nikki Reich: The child is leading their parent through the conference and they have to tell their parent about their work and so theyâre trying to describe it to them in like a Spanglish. It would be, for example: "Mama, mira! Look at, mira this paper." And the mom doesn't speak any English. And the son, he doesn't know Spanish very well. So it makes me wonder: How are they talking at home?

This question comes up all the time during conferences -- especially when we see parents and kids who are at such a loss in communicating with one another that the interpreters, who are actually hired for teachers so they can talk to parents about their kids scores, spend most of their time at the conference walking around the classroom, translating between kids and their moms.

This all might have been more understandable had the kids been asked to come up with Spanish words for the some of the strange academic jargon we use in class like "math manipulatives" or, for phonics books, "decodables." But they weren't. All they were supposed to do was play an addition game with little cubes and then read aloud the fable that they'd written -- very short stories about spiders stealing quarters or foxes getting sick from eating too many ladybugs.

In the end, it didn't matter. Whatever the kids had done in English â"--for this was an English-immersion class -- they could not find a way to explain it in Spanish, much less Kanjobal. When Andrea sat down with her mom at the math center, she just stared at her for a minute, totally silent, until something came over her, and she rather impatiently asked, in Spanish, "Do you speak English?" to which they both burst out laughing.

It had always been clear that Andrea was missing a bit of English -- because, of course, like 85 percent of Esperanza Elementary School's first-graders, she was still learning English.

But the conferences made clear that she and many of her classmates were also missing Spanish and that for so many reasons, they were not learning it at home. Or more accurately, they were not learning the kind of Spanish at home that helped them at school. And as it turned out, they were not learning the kind of English at school that translated to the Spanish they spoke at home.

So, without either world offering much connection to the other, Andrea simply lived in between. She was seven years old and so small that she won our classroom limbo contest without even having to arch her back or bend her knees. Already, in the absence of a foundation in even one language, she's more or less on her own, lost to her own thoughts.

At this point, in this kind of distance, when kids get trapped in their own heads, without language to get out -- teachers see a few things happen. One of them involves hitting. Esperanza teacher Lillian Thompson puts it like this:

Lillian Thompson: And what I see at the end of first grade, they can't talk to their parents. The parents can't control them behavior-wise. The kids begin to punch their parents. I see violence.

Another option is that they just quietly fade out. Researchers who study drop-out rates say that dropping out is the final act of disengagement, final meaning that disengagement is a process that can start when kids are very young. Hereâs one response to this common retreat from Esperanza teacher John Bohm:

John Bohm: Those are the kids you really worry about. Because the ones who are acting up! At least --I know that something is going on with that kid and I can kind of like figure out a way, whereas the kid who is very silent, they're really falling through the cracks -- and they can't access their academic language in their native tongue, in Spanish or in English.

Of course there are also the kids who manage just fine and make it in this system -- but not nearly as many as we might hope. The drop-out rate in California still hovers at around 25% and for Latinos it's much higher, between 30 and 40%.

As it happens, most of the factors that make students more likely to drop out are true for Andrea. Her parents never finished high school; in fact her mom never finished elementary school. Her oldest sister dropped out at 16, pregnant. Her family's poor and her parents don't have papers. Like most of my students, Andrea started school with all of this stacked against her. The only advantage she did have, over a lot of American-born students, was this linguistic richness, this access and exposure to multiple languages in her own home and neighborhood.

Yet, even though this is an advantage that every bit of national demographic data tells us will only be more important and more marketable in the future, our school did little else but squash it -- and all before the yearâs end, all before Andrea was even seven years old.

How this came to be in California has its recent roots with a man named Ron Unz, a theoretical physicist and software developer from the Silicon Valley. The initiative he brought to the ballot in 1998 essentially ended California's thirty-year attempt at bilingual education.

Ron Unz: This is not an English Only initiative. This is not an English first initiative. This is English FOR THE CHILDREN!

This is what the campaign to end bilingual education was called: English for the Children. Like so many other anti-bilingual education campaigns, including the many that opposed German/English instruction in the years leading up to the first World War, this one in California played on themes of national unity. In fact, the campaign's web address was: onenation.org. Inspiration for the initiative, Unz said, came from a boycott staged by immigrant parents who kept their kids out of school until the school agreed to teach their kids only in English, not Spanish. Here's Unz, in a debate:

Ron Unz: Well the current system is just a dismal failure. A quarter of all the children in California public schools don't know English.

Howard Blume, an education reporter for LA Weekly at the time, saw the failure like this:

Howard Blume: Well the whole education system wasn't working at some level, it wasn't just bilingual ed. But bilingual ed was certainly not working in terms of the students were not emerging as proficient in English or Spanish, they weren't emerging doing well on standardized tests, they were dropping out at a high rate. So clearly something wasn't working.

California voters overwhelmingly decided that this thing was bilingual education. Unz's proposition passed 61-39%. English for the Children campaigns then spread successfully to Arizona and Massachusetts, but were defeated in Colorado. More are currently planned in Illinois, Oregon, and New York. An LA Times poll taken at the time revealed that three out of four voters explained their support for the proposition with this mantra: "If you live in America, you need to speak English."

Andrea's parents weren"t polled by the LAT, but they agree with the sentiment. Like many Esperanza parents, Guadalupe and Pascual believe English to the be the most important thing their kids learn at school. So when they enrolled Andrea in kindergarten, they put her in Esperanza's English immersion class, just like they had done with all of Andrea's siblings figuring the more English the better.

It's generally accepted, in education circles, that it's easier to acquire a second language if you have a solid foundation in your first language. So actually English immersion can and has worked well for kids who have homes where they get this kind of solid linguistic foundation. But this is not the kind of home that Andrea -- or really, most of my students -- came from.

Andrea: Hi! My name's Andrea. I have four sisters. Marcia, Virginia, Sonia, Yobany, a mom called Guadalupe and a dad. His name is Pascual.

Actually Andrea has three sisters and one brother, Yobany, and all but the eldest sleep in the front room of their apartment together with their mom and dad. Andrea and her mom share a bed. And Andrea's mom adores Andrea, in fact she adores Andrea so much that Andrea's siblings, Sonia and Yobany, think that Andrea is her mom's favorite.

Sonia: She takes her, everywhere she goes, my mom, it's always Andrea.

Yobany: Only like once a year, she takes Marcia. That is something rare.

Devin: And all the other times?

Yobany: Andrea.

This is all true, but the real reasons Andrea's mom takes Andrea with her, mainly to her factory on Saturdays, are that: one, Andrea is, again, so small that the bus driver lets her ride for free, and two, there aren't all that many times during the week that Guadalupe gets to see her. Andrea's mom -- and dad, for that matter -- work all the time. And when they are home, they speak to Andrea sometimes in Spanish and sometimes in Kanjobal.

Both Pascual and Guadalupe were born in the Guatemalan state of Barrillas to parents who were farmers and street vendors. It is totally normal to them that Andrea speak a different language at school -- when they were kids, in Guatemala, they spoke Kanjobal at home and Spanish at school and none of their parents had a thing to do with their formal schooling. Pascual completed sixth grade, Guadalupe stopped after second. She was married at 14, pregnant at 16, and in the end bore five children, of which Andrea is the last. Every morning, Guadalupe is up 6 a.m., out the door at 6:30, and in front of her sewing machine by 7. She works until 5 p.m., often having so many garments to sew that she brings her work home with her at night for the kids to help with while she cooks dinner.

Yobany: Cause she says she gets tired at work, so she brings home -- she calls them punos, but I donât know how to say it in English. Yeah, we just fold them to the other side.

The whole family folds them to help out. Punos are cuffs on a sleeve, by the way. Pascual also works at a factory during the day. For awhile, at night, he also took English classes at Belmont Adult School, but then stopped to take a second job as a security guard. With two jobs, he still barely enough to cover their $1250 rent for their one-bedroom apartment that, all totaled, 10 people share. Andrea hardly sees her dad -- and when she does, he's sleeping. If he's home and awake and, Andrea says, not very grumpy, he sometimes helps, usually with math.

Pascual: She says, I can't do it. And I understand math. What I can't understand -- is English.

But remember, Andrea is in an English-only class. All of her homework -- even much of the math, like the word problems, the shapes, measurement -- is in English. Which leaves only Andrea's siblings to help her if she gets lost. This is not a very well-suited role for her oldest sister, Virginia, who, remember, dropped out of high school at 16, pregnant, and is now at 18, expecting her second child. It's also a lot to ask of Sonia and Yobany, who are still in school and who mainly do their own homework, though neither can totally see the point.

Sonia: Because I don't like school. Sometimes it's boring and sometimes I don't get the classes, so I might as well ditch.

So Andrea does most of her schoolwork on her own. Often, it's haunting to read. I remember that for one assignment, during our unit on maps, I asked the kids to make a map of their apartment and label each room. Many kids brought in sketches of studios or one-bedrooms with the word "la cocina" next to the kitchen and "la sala" next to the couch and, in one case, "computer" written of course next to a PC. But Andrea's drawing was absent of anything --no rooms, no furniture -- except a picture of a little girl next to the words "1 TICK." I tried to ask her, in private, if there was anything at home that we might want to talk about -- an insect infestation for example. She sort of started to talk about this with me, but stopped, for, predictably, she didn't have the words -- in any language.
Only much later, during a visit to her house, did the drawing come up again.

Devin: Do you like where you live?

Andrea: No. It's cuz I don't want no spiders, no cock-a-roach and no rats.

Devin: Do you have ticks?

Andrea: What's a tick?

Devin: Ticks are little black insects that crawl up beneath your skin.

Andrea: No.

Devin: Do you have beDevinugs?

Andrea: No.

Devin: No chinches?

Andrea: No. Yes! Sometimes I do.

She definitely did. She knew just where the beDevinugs lived and just how they died. In moments like this one, the issue of a language that can link home and school is not just a mere luxury of cultural preservation or even academic strategy, but one of safety. How many more of my students might be unable to tell me about what happens at their house because they didn't know how to tell me in English and I didn't know how to ask them in Spanish? Insects are visual, tangible -- but there could be any number of circumstances, variations of neglect or abuse that are much harder to explain in any language, but especially a second or third language. More unsettling was the fact that not only could Andrea not get any support at home for what goes on at school, but also -- she couldn't get any support at school for what happens at home.

And it's in this neighborhood that we might reasonably expect Andrea to learn language -- if not at her home. As it turns out though, her neighborhood -- her world between home and school -- offers very little in terms of a foundation.

The neighborhood, MacArthur Park, in Los Angeles, is the densest neighborhood in the United States outside of Manhattan. It's a world is filled with noise, but not necessarily language. Another student at Esperanza, Oscar, who lives around the corner hears what Andrea hears.

Oscar: I hear the Dash and cars, cars like that are going. When someone is putting music in the streets and I can hear it. Or when someone is fighting, you could hear it. Like screaming.

All over the neighborhood are signs and store names like "Mucho Bargain" and "Regalos Para Baby Shower." The written language of MacArthur Park is neither Spanish, nor English, but, like Andrea, somewhere in between. Also, it's often misspelled or grammatically incorrect -- for example the sign that says "Foot Doctor for Childrens" and the banner advertising a flu shot, flu spelled f-l-u-e.

This is the world Andrea walks in everyday between home and school and back again. It's the only world she knows. There is her house, her school and her mom's clothing factory on 7th & Spring streets, downtown, where she goes on Saturdays. Sometimes there is also Elysian Park, the laundromat, and her family's church. She's never been enrolled in an art class or a sport -- she's never left L.A. She's never been to the movies.

And it's this place that Andrea comes to school from. The chasm between the two worlds is huge and great, and about so much more than just language. Again, here's Esperanza teacher, Nikki Reich.

Nikki Reich: Well, some of the kids, they come in and they only have one name. And when we enroll them, we need a first name and a last name. And the father who was enrolling the kids -- he heard another parent talking about their child. And he said, "What's that childâs name? OK, put that name down." So this child in my class just got two first names. One was his first name and one was standing out to be his last name just because the father didn't know what last name to put, so he just picked one. So every member of their family that goes to this school has a different last name.

A lot of teachers mention anecdotes like this one -- maybe they sent home a permission slip only to have an X come back in place of a signature, maybe they asked a child on the first day of kindergarten what their name was and the child was sure it was "mi hijo" which is a term of endearment in Spanish that means "my child."

And out of this great gap, Andrea comes into the classroom. Her class is called a "Structured English Immersion" class, but consider: As the teacher, I am actually one of the only native English speakers in the room. There are no teaching assistants and, as a side note, the only other native English speaker is a kid who really struggles with his behavior, you know, hitting etc., so he doesn't socialize with the rest of the class very much. I mention this only because the research says that the English-learners who have one friend, just one peer that is a native English speaker, are much more likely to attain fluency. But almost no one in my class has this resource. Mostly, I am the only person in their life that speaks English to them.

So, with this ratio, it's not really English that the kids are immersed in, but their own first-grade version of English-like idioms. For example, the phrase, "It's cuz like." For an entire semester, I corrected and encouraged and basically battled with the kids to start out their sentences differently, but I was outnumbered and I lost. Similarly, the word "barely" was so widely misused at Esperanza, that I almost stopped hearing the word. The kids use it when they mean to say "already" as in, "He barely came Miss Browne."

The English we teach them is a lot less catchy. To understand what kind of English this is and how it's taught, it's important to first understand how we teach reading. This is true for a couple of reasons -- the first is that in every grade in elementary school in LAUSD, teachers spend roughly two-thirds of instructional time on reading and writing -- even when we have our hour that's supposed to be devoted solely to "English language development" there's still a lot of reading and writing to back up whatever we're working on orally. We have just a sliver of time in the afternoon to get in math, science, social science, art, music, and PE, all subjects that when taught well, support language development in a more natural way. The other reason I'm talking here about reading is that we mainly evaluate how well kids are learning English by their reading and writing scores.

So we're reading pretty much all day and this means that the English we're speaking is also, often, in the vernacular of the reading program.

Tape: Goo! Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh. What could be making that sound?

This is some of the first English Andrea hears.

Tape, continued: Could it be a new flute playing a tune? No! It's goo.

Of course, knowing the sounds of letters is an essential part of any reading program, but this program goes further with this focus on phonics, almost to the point where more attention is given to whether or not a kid can pronounce or decode a word, versus if that kid is actually reading or understanding what that word means.

For example, before we get to books -- and really, the kids never get to books; instead, in the higher grades, they get anthologies with excerpts from books -- but before they even get to this point they read from little printed hand-outs called decodables that are based not on context, but on phonetic repetition. As an example, we have in honor of the "au" sound, sentences like: "Paul hauls prawns at dawn in his yawl." And:

Andrea: Once and again, something in Paul's net caught into became taught.

Devin: So what do you think this story is about?

Andrea: I . . . don't know.

As basic a comprehension question as this is, it would not have made it into the classroom. (I asked Andrea this on the front steps of her house.) In class, the questions are scripted. I mean this literally. The reading program, the questions -- they're are all scripted. There is in fact a script that goes with every lesson. So what should have followed the prawns is the Question, quote, What did Paul haul in, followed by the answer, Quote Paul hauled in fish after fish. End quote.

I was a new, temporary teacher so I always followed the script and invariably when I did, I would look up to find Carlos asleep or Fernando with a rubber band wedged inside of his mouth, plucking away at the strings, making music. Andrea mainly just dazed away and thought of other things, things with which Paul and his prawns simply could not compete, things like:

Andrea: Um, secret stuff.

Devin: What kind of secret stuff?

Andrea: Like, Esperanza, a girl named Esperanza likes a boy named Lisandro. And then I'm thinking that she might marry him and he might marry her. That's what Iâm thinking about.

In the program's defense, the rigid structure and script are supposed to help new teachers who might not know what to say. It provides materials and content and a foundation in phonics, for how are kids supposed to read if they cannot crack the alphabetic code? It also helps establish consistency in a massive school district that serves roughly 700,000 students -- so that everyone at the district's headquarters on Beaudry Street can rest assured that at exactly 9 a.m., every first grade teacher in LAUSD is word-building.

The district is serious about this schematic approach, so serious, in fact, that after it introduced the reading program in 2000, they started to send principals and vice principals, literacy coaches and district VPs into classrooms to make sure at 9 in the morning that you are really are teaching word-building.

Lillian Thompson: And it made it very nerve-wracking to work there.

Again, teacher Lillian Thompson.

Lillian Thompson: It made you want to stay in your classroom, so that â"-"Oh my god! Two minutes to transition!" You know, you felt the pressure. The result for me: two things happened. First, all my hair turned grey. You know this is a wig, right? Ok. And bald spots, all my hair came out. When I was ready to quit and near a nervous breakdown, I was . . .

She goes on to say that the observations only got more intense, the pressure so great, that some teachers started to juke their stats.

Lillian Thompson: Where it said "120," "80," the kids were reading between 30 and 40 words. And I said, well, who told you to skip words? "Oh, our other teacher said it! If you don't recognize the words, just skip it, it gets the fluency score up!"

Everyone feels the pressure, even the kids. When I visited my old class recently, on their last day of third grade, I asked them how Carlos was doing since he wasn't at lunch with us. Instead of telling me he's good or not so good, they told me his fluency score, the exact amount of words he could read per minute. It was that public. It was that on their minds. This motivates some kids for sure, but it puts off others. When Andrea told me that third grade was boring, this was her reason:

Andrea: Because Mr. Ramirez wants us to read high and I can't.

Devin: Do you think it would be exciting if you could read all the words?

Andrea: Yes.

Andrea was never a high reader -- in first grade, she was average relative to our class and very low relative to where California wanted her to be. Still, her scores improved over the year and, as the reading program predicts, she did start to decode the alphabet and sound out words in English. But she could never really reproduce the language in a way that was her own. She could never really reproduce it in a way that was meaningful. For example, I kept a mailbox on my desk for the kids who wanted to write me letters. From the more advanced writers in the class, I got notes with simple sentences like "You're a nice teacher" or "Youâre a pretty teacher" or, my favorite, a total surprise from Fernando who wrote: "Dear Miss Browne, it's not my fault because Carlos told me to throw it."
Andrea also wrote me letters, but hers had neither simple sentences nor pleas of absolution. Instead, they were long lists of nouns or numbers, 1-100. Sometimes there were bubble maps, another thing we used during our reading lessons. Similarly, when I visited her house once, I asked her, on her porch, what words she might like to know in Kanjobal -- since she admitted that she could understand her mom, but could only respond in Spanish. I was expecting words that were relevant to her life at home like "house" or "porch." Instead, just as if we were in a phonics class, she said:

Andrea: I want to know how to say ice, rice, ice. Ice and rice rhyme.

It was so many little things like this â" individually, they might have meant very little, but together they added up to a kind of English that was in many ways like the English she read in her decodables -- non-sensical, out of context, not relevant.

Not long after I started to notice how strained and confused Andrea's English was becoming, her family also started to notice how strained and confused her Spanish was becoming. If her sister Marcia accused Andrea of something Andrea felt to be untrue, for example:

Marcia: She likes Isaiah.

Andrea might counter back, in the kind of Spanglish that made her parents cringe:

Andrea: Que tu pones your own business, nina!

So when Andrea was in second grade, Pascual thought for a bit of putting her and her sister Marcia in bilingual classes. He explained his reasoning like this:

Pascual: For them, for me, it's better to speak both. like with you, you only speak English. And it's a problem for you. I don't want it to be a problem for [Andrea].

And it was a problem for Andrea. Her whole family knew this; her older siblings, who were born in Guatemala and had years to build their Spanish, teased her constantly, so much so that Andrea started to become self-conscious in her Spanish, declaring one day that she just wasn't any good at it.

This is not what Pascual wanted to hear. He worried Andrea was overwhelmed with school as it was. And in the end, he decided against transferring her to a bilingual class.

The thing is, even if he hadn't -- he would've been too late.

The most basic reason for this is because Andrea never learned how to read or write in Spanish and by this point, even her oral Spanish was more or less lost. She could not have kept up.

The other reason is that the bilingual program at Esperanza is disappearing. It gets smaller and smaller every year. More about this in a minute.

First, a bit of background -- the thing to know about Esperanza's bilingual program is that it and other programs like it, are loopholes in Prop 227. In theory, the proposition was supposed to wipe out bilingual education in the state of California. In practice, it didn't. It just made it so that parents had to request a waiver for their kids to be in bilingual classes. The important, often misunderstood thing about these bilingual classes, is that like the bilingual classes before Prop 227, they are at their core still about ENGLISH --the point is to get kids learning in English, in English-only classrooms as quickly as possible. Reading, writing and knowing academic Spanish are stepping stones, but they are not the goals.

Here's Esperanza Principal Felicia Michell on the waiver program:

Felicia Michell: The goal for our particular program is not to be bilingual, biliterate. which causes some confusion.

Even without the stated goal of biliteracy, the teachers at Esperanza have managed to more or less achieve something quite close to this. Teachers, like Linda Ayalla, notice this:

Lynda Ayalla: My children coming from Spanish, were able to spell for the English-only kids, the SEI kids, they were able to tell them, "Oh no that means this" and spell it out for them . . . my kids had a true sense of being bilingual and these are only first graders. My Spanish-speaking kids who had Spanish and English were able to HELP the kids who only spoke English.

So while Andrea's free-writing in first grade sounded like this:

Andrea: If you drop the hula hoop, you're out and the next person comes. When I went to play hula hoop, then we went to play in the park.

A typical kid from Ms. Thompson's Spanish & English class could write in English like this:

Lillian Thompson: I like to play soccer with Avimael, Minor, Lester Carlos and Omar. I like to play soccer in recess. In recess, it was hot.

Neither is completely correct -- should have been AT recess, not IN recess -- or perfectly spelled or exceptionally detailed, but considering that Ms. Thompson's student could write the same thing and much more in Spanish and Andrea could not, it's hard to argue that Ms. Thompson's kid isn't leaving the first grade with more knowledge and more skills. And like most advocates of bilingual education, Lillian Thompson, who has taught many grades, sees that the benefits are much later down the line.

Lillian Thompson: Because a word like "penultimate" would pop out of their mouths in English instead of "next to the last." They would understand if I said, "You need to masticate the food carefully." "Masticar" means "chew."

It's unlikely students at Esperanza will one day see these results though, because again, the bilingual program is disappearing. Officially this is because fewer parents are requesting the waiver class. I asked Principal Felicia Michell if the parents ever asked her advice in which program to choose, and she said:

Felicia Michell: Sure.

Devin: And what do you tell them?

Felicia Michell: That we can inform, and not influence. So we give them the information and not any personal opinion, belief, bias. It's the parents choice, it needs to be the parent's choice.

Nikki Reich: Now the administration says that these are the choices that the parents are making.

Again, Esperanza teacher Nikki Reich.

Nikki Reich: But one parent had her student in my class and I noticed he was just crying, he just seemed miserable all day long, . . . I talked to the mom, in my broken Spanish. You know I have 26 in my class. The bilingual class, where you might be more comfortable because the teacher can help you in your own language, has 14, and I'm wondering if maybe he would like to move to his class. And the mom said that she had wanted him in that bilingual class, but the office didn't put him in that class.

This story is so common that almost all of the teachers that I interviewed at Esperanza told it, or some variation of it -- different moms, different kids, same story.

Lillian Thompson: There have been various attempts to wipe us out.

Lynda Ayalla: One of the situations was a parent that came to sign up her child; she was told there was no room, so they had to put her child back in an English class.

Lillian Thompson: Because the parents come back and ask -- Well I asked about bilingual classes; they said there weren't any. I said, you need to go and ask them to put your name on a list. They were told to go to another school, the other school said: Esperanza has bilingual classes.

Nikki Reich: Maybe the mom was confused. And again, they don't read either -- so they're relying on us and the administration to help them work through this labyrinth of paper that is so confusing for them.

Lillian Thompson: When 20 parents put their name on a list and say, "I want a bilingual class," it must be provided. But if parents don't know they have the right to have their names put on a list and to have a copy of the list . . . it's finished.

Lynda Ayalla: The point was: There was room. She was told there wasn't.

Nikki Reich: So I took her hand and I marched her straight to the office and said, "This mom wants her son in the bilingual class" and then of course they switched her right away.

In the case of this last story, the child was switched out of Nikki Reich's English-immersion class into Angie Low's waiver, bilingual class. Here's Angie Low on what happened next:

Angie Low: When he came to me . . . it took about four months for him to really understand that reading is a process -- first letters, then syllables, then words -- And he has really blossomed in my class. He is at grade level in my class right now. He reads over 40 words per minute, which is what was required of him six weeks ago.

Officially, the LAUSD doesn't care. And why should it? The tests that matter don't ask and don't value what kids learn in any language other than English. These tests, the California Standards Test, value skills in reading and math. In fifth grade, they also value science. Strangely, the state does not care if its students know another language in elementary school or middle school, but they do suddenly care when the students are in high school. They also care at the college level -- every UC and Cal State has foreign language requirements.

One reason colleges and universities value proficiency in more than one language is because part of the statistics that hold them accountable revolve around job placement, and it is a well-known and well-accepted fact that bilingual people are often more employable. Ironically, school districts know this better than anyone --the superintendent of Chicago's public schools wrote to the New York Times last year that he/she wanted to have a bilingual program but the district didn't have enough bilingual, biliterate, qualified teachers to hire to run it. Moreover, bilingual teachers are paid more.

So even though the school districts know, from their own organization, that bilingual people are more hireable and better paid, it is still not a K-12 priority. Instead the priorities are on CST scores and reclassification rates. Esperanza's principal is under considerable pressure to reclassify every single one of her students as fluent in English by the time they go to middle school -- if they aren't, they'll be stuck in remedial English classes instead of tracked for college. If they are tracked for college, of course, theyâll have a foreign language requirement -- which by this time, many students have forgotten.

Interestingly, as bilingual programs at inner-city schools like Andrea's disappear, they grow more and more popular in suburban schools every year. Also charter schools. These bilingual programs -- the ones that are so popular -- are called dual-language and they are different than the waiver program at Esperanza. These differences are notable. Mainly: the goals of dual-language programs are bilingualism AND biliteracy. And dual language programs are structured in such a way that half the kids speak English and half speak something else -- Spanish mostly, but also Korean or Mandarin. These programs rely on schools that are integrated. And Andrea's school, like most schools in LAUSD, is NOT.

Andrea: O.K. classroom, today we're going to learn about math. And then weâre going to learn -- about divisions. O.K., Melanie tell me about one division.

Here is school as Andrea sees it. She's in charge, it's her classroom -- which is really her living room, and she's making it all up as she goes along. Andrea is nine now. This would have been one of her last days of third grade, but she was sent home early because the school nurse found head lice in her hair. This is the third time this has happened in two months. So in lieu of being in actual school, she's set it up at home, something her brother says she does pretty regularly.

Yobany: She gets weird paper there and gets some markers and whatever she can find on the floor as students and she starts talking to them.

Andrea: It's 7 divided by 12. You might get it.

Yobany: . . . screams at them, gives them detention.

Andrea: O.K., Marlon, go to the rug! I'm going to call your parents if you talk again. And you're sending a letter home today.

She goes from division to fractions to recess, telling me explicitly that she does not and will not teach reading. Indeed, even though she really can now read, she rarely does. Earlier this week, when she'd discovered a stop-watch on my phone, she dug to the bottom of a dresser to find a book -- by name, The Hero of Third Grade -- that looks as if it's never been opened before. Until now. Setting the stopwatch, Andrea and her sister Marcia do the only thing they know how to do with books -- they read it really fast, timing and quizzing each other for a fluency score.

In this way, she is a perfect product of her public schools. She's more interested in tests than books; she can read, but she's far from knowing what any of the words mean.

When the girls get bored with the quizzes, they move onto another game, a game they call "Manager." The game is based on their actual apartment manager, who Andrea describes like this:

Andrea: Heâs strong; he's like a bully.

Devin: Your manager is like a bully?

Andrea: Kind-of. Sometimes, yes.

The way this game goes is that Andrea and a few girls from the back house act very drunk and get kicked out of their house; then, the manager, played by Andrea's sister, Marcia, gets the money anyway. The attention to detail is impressive and makes clear that Andrea is absorbing quite well what is going on in the world around her. In truth, like most of the kids in this neighborhood, she's a veritable expert witness on slum lords, sweat shops, overcrowded schools, and so many other problems of our city and society. Obviously, she has a lot to say, but if she doesn't have the words, how will she ever tell us?

Epilogue:
This story spans three years of reporting, from 2008-2010. These were busy, even tumultuous years at Esperanza Elementary, in which the school not only made variety of staff changes, in part due to massive budget cuts, but also dealt with a series of mounting pressures around the threat of a charter takeover. (See The Takeaway for more.) Many of the teachers I interviewed explained that the result is a closer, more unified staff and a better overall relationship between the teachers and the administration. It's true that the Bilingual Program continues to shrink, but the teachers said recently that this seemed less a factor of misinformation in the office and more to do with other, more complicated district issues and cultural perceptions. Ms. Thompson, Ms. Ayalla, Ms. Lowe, and Ms. Reich remain in the first grade. Ms. Michell is still the principal. And Andrea is now in fourth grade, and expecting her first little brother or sister, her mom's sixth child.


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