Hispanic Link News Service

Monday, May 25, 1998

The Ninth Street Myth: Who Speaks for Latino Parents?

Anecdotes can be powerful. Unlike academic research or statistics, they highlight the human impact of public policy decisions.

But they can also be dangerous. What if the anecdote is just an isolated event, a misleading story that fails to represent the larger truth? And what if the anecdote itself is untrue?

"Bilingual Schooling Is Failing, Parents Say" ... "80 Students Stay Out of School in Latino Boycott" ... "Parents Seek More English-Only Classes" ...

Such headlines, describing a 1996 confrontation at the Ninth Street School in Los Angeles, have appeared throughout the country. According to news accounts, immigrant parents were so frustrated with a mostly Spanish curriculum and an unresponsive bureaucracy that they pulled their children out of school to demand English instruction.

Two years later, we're still hearing about the Ninth Street boycott. It has been featured in countless news stories about Proposition 227, the campaign to "eliminate bilingual education in California by June 1998."

For Yes on 227 proponents, this incident was a godsend. Multimillionaire Ron Unz says it inspired him to sponsor the "English for the Children" initiative. He launched his campaign and established his headquarters in the Ninth Street neighborhood. In radio commercials, Unz quotes a parent who participated in the boycott to illustrate Latino opposition to bilingual education.

As political theater, the Ninth Street story could not have been more useful to English-only advocates if they had scripted and stage-managed it themselves. In fact, that's just what they did.

The protest against bilingual education was spearheaded by Alice Callaghan, a local activist who runs a daycare center near the school. Virtually all the parents involved were low-paid garment workers, recently arrived from Mexico, who depended on Callaghan's services.

Prior to the boycott, every one of these parents had signed forms consenting to bilingual instruction, according to principal Eleanor Vargas Page. If only they had come and asked, she says, they could have enrolled their children in the school's alternative, intensive English program. After all, parents' right to make this choice is guaranteed under California law.

Of course, this simple solution would not have produced a confrontation -- or the sensational headlines that followed.

The principal felt she had been ambushed. "I was in shock," she recalls. "The conflict was not here in the school. The complaints were initiated by Alice Callaghan, not by the parents."

Before Vargas Page arrived five years ago, Ninth Street had been a troubled school. It still faces huge obstacles in serving an impoverished community, where half of the 460 students are classified as homeless and 92 percent are limited in English.

By 1996, however, improvements were clearly evident. Children's scores on English-language achievement tests were rising -- up 35% in four years. The bilingual program was providing at least two hours of English each day, with the amount of Spanish decreasing until students were ready for regular classrooms, usually by fourth or fifth grade.

Vargas Page invited the boycotting parents to come and talk about bilingual education -- its rationale and its results in teaching English -- so they could make an informed decision for their children.

But Callaghan advised them to stay away rather than face "harassment" by school personnel. Instead, she circulated a consent form in English among the Spanish-speaking parents. Then -- several days into the boycott, Callaghan concedes -- she submitted their signatures demanding English-only classrooms. Even after the school agreed, she held the students out for two more days.

No doubt some parents were sincerely convinced that bilingual education was to blame for their children's academic problems. But others, according to Vargas Page, confided that they had "no choice" but to boycott "or they would lose the free daycare."

Callaghan denies making such a threat. Whatever was said, however, such fears are not hard to understand among a vulnerable group whose actions were being showcased for political purposes.

What do immigrants really want for their kids? A recent poll by Los Angeles' Spanish-language media found that 88 percent of the city's Latino parents with children in bilingual programs believe the programs are beneficial.

Yet Unz and Callaghan seek to exploit an orchestrated conflict -- involving a minority of parents within a single school out of 8,000 schools in California -- to pass a measure severely restricting the right of all parents to choose bilingual education. With Proposition 227, they would impose an untested English-only approach, promising fluency in one year.

How did this experiment work at Ninth Street? More than a year after 74 children were pulled out of bilingual classrooms, only two of them -- less than 3 percent -- were tested as proficient in English.

By Ron Unz's standard, that's a 97 percent "failure rate." It's also a preview of what 1.5 million California children could expect under Proposition 227.