Monday, September 19, 2011

PUTTING OUR MINDS TO HELP IMMIGRANTS LEARN ENGLISH: Education officials and community leaders need to show more imagination in meeting the challenges.

Steve Lopez

By Steve Lopez, LA Times Columnist |


For low-income immigrants the task of learning English is further complicated by more pressing matters — such as trying to survive. (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times / June 14, 2010)

September 17, 2011, 5:59 p.m. - In my back-to-school column two weeks ago, I wrote that parents ought to look in the mirror before pinning all the blame for the state of education on schools and teachers.

Readers were with me on the idea that parents ought to be more engaged in their children's education, whether they do so at home, on campus or by marching on Sacramento. But reactions split over my suggestion that parents who make no effort to learn English aren't helping their kids or themselves.

As promised, here's the follow-up.

And let me begin by saying that lack of parental involvement is a problem regardless of income or race. Are any parents more annoying than those who impose no discipline at home, then blame their child's disruptive antics or lousy grades on the school, the curriculum or the teacher's inability to recognize what a genius the child is?

Now to the subject of language. In the Sept. 4 column, a parent volunteer told me that she's attended meetings conducted in Spanish, with an English translation for her. I said that struck me as ridiculous, because what incentive is there to learn English if you don't have to?

In retrospect, my wording was harsh, and among those who took issue was a public school administrator from Ventura.

"So we should hold meetings only in English?" she wrote. "Even if 90% won't understand, and then will stop coming?"

Well, I'd suggest translating into Spanish rather than into English. But if that discourages parent participation, sure, it might be counterproductive. But my point about the importance of learning English, the language in which the world's business is conducted, is a broader one.

Of course it's difficult to learn a new language, especially for busy adults (I've struggled with Spanish for years). And for low-income immigrants the task is further complicated by more pressing matters — such as trying to survive. There's also an understandable desire to hold onto primary languages.

But I have no doubt that the decades-long inability of my grandparents to speak English fluently — it was Spanish on one side, Italian on the other — limited their job prospects and upward mobility in California. It may also be one of the reasons neither of my parents even considered going to college.

It's undeniable that language barriers — and perhaps to an even greater extent, economic disadvantages — are major factors in the abysmal test scores and graduation rates in California and other states. Starting school without English can be a disorienting hardship for the student, a drag on classmates and a great burden on the teacher.

So why is the subject of language taboo?

Monica Garcia, board president at Los Angeles Unified, said it's obvious that speaking English is an advantage for parents. But that's not easy to accomplish, she said, when adult education programs have been eviscerated despite great demand for English classes.

A more important goal for the district, Garcia said, is to find more ways to engage parents — in whatever language — and get them involved in challenging their children and the schools to do a better job.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told me it's important to provide Spanish translation at school meetings but to also, "at every turn," encourage parents to learn English. He added that research suggests today's Spanish-speaking immigrants are learning English at roughly the same pace as European immigrants did a century ago, and that social class is a bigger factor than ethnicity.

Lupe Hernandez, who is principal of Huntington Park High School and has a long history of coordinating parent-outreach programs, told me she runs meetings in English when possible but adds Spanish if necessary. In any language that works, she tells parents to drill their children on the four Ps.

"Be punctual, prepared, participatory and productive."


"Any immigrant should learn English; I mean, that's a given because it's economic mobility," said Antonia Hernandez, whose California Community Foundation focuses on parent engagement and training. "But parents need to be involved, whether they speak Chinese, Cantonese, Spanish or English."

When they do get involved, she said, "it expedites their desire and ability to learn English."

Hernandez, whose parents spoke only Spanish when the family moved to the United States in 1956, told me she didn't speak English comfortably until fourth grade and didn't think in English until she was in law school. As the eldest of seven, she became the family English tutor, making sure her younger siblings didn't have the same struggles she did, and she encouraged them to aim for college.

"You need a parent or somebody strong who's pushing, pushing, pushing," said Antonia Hernandez's sister, Margarita, who just retired from teaching after a three-decade career.

Four years ago, Margarita adopted two 9-year-olds who grew up in El Salvador and spoke mostly Spanish. Until she was in charge.

"No," she told them, "you can't watch the telenovelas, and you can't speak Spanish in the house." Now, Margarita said, "they're in middle school and they're doing great."

We could use more parents like that, and we could use more imagination from school officials and community leaders.

This is Los Angeles, a great international city on the Pacific Rim, with all the inherent economic and cultural advantages. So why is it the rest of the world speaks multiple languages — including English — while we struggle with one?

Students who speak only English ought to be learning another language — how about Spanish? Public funds may be short, but if LAUSD Supt. John Deasy can raise the $200 million in private donations he's after, why not pour a chunk of it into English classes for adults, and celebrate L.A.'s diversity by putting a premium on graduating bilingual and even trilingual students?

Un sueño grande, sí. Pero, porque no? / A big dream, yes. But why not?

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