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Latinos call for better education

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Friday June 08, 2001

While the growth of Berkeley’s Latino population may not be dramatic – the 2000 Census says there’s approximately 2,000 more Latinos (about 10,000 total) in the city today than 10 years before – a new faith-based movement of Hispanic families promises to make a profound impression on the local political scene. 

“Members of St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley are uniting to demand that their Latino students, the majority of whom don’t graduate, will be made a top priority by the Berkeley School Board and high school principal,” according to a letter inviting the community to a meeting with two school board members at the church Monday. 

The new group organizing the meeting, Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, is made up of 12 local religious congregations and is part of the Pacific Institute for Community Organization, a nationwide network of faith-based community organizations. 

Board of Education President Terry Doran and school director Joaquin Rivera promised to be at the meeting. 

Among the concerns parents have is that their children are placed automatically in remedial English classes at Berkeley High, where they miss studying other subjects. 

“Many children in the (English Language Learner) program have been speaking English since birth,” said Liz Fuentes, a parent of a graduating Berkeley High senior and teacher at Thousand Oaks School. “They have no business being in ELL.” 

How do they end up in these classes? 

Once parents write down on a school form that they speak Spanish at home, the child is shunted into the ELL program, Fuentes said. “It’s racism.” 

Judy Bodenhausen, who heads the ELL program, tells a different story. She says all students whose native language is not English are tested and placed in the program if their English skills are limited and if parents want their children in the program. “It’s up to the parents,” she said. Children whose English is strong enough can take classes outside the program, she said. Those whose skills are very limited might take classes such as typing, physical education or art classes outside ELL. 

When advised that some parents feel their children are wrongly placed in the program and that the program limits their children’s intellectual growth, Bodenhausen told a reporter: “I’m not talking to you about that.” The teacher then also declined to confirm the correct spelling of her name. 

Board President Doran, who said he has worked with Latinos Unidos, another group supporting Latino families in the schools., said he plans to attend the Monday meeting to hear the community’s concerns. He said he’s aware that people in the Latino community have doubts about the ELL program and that there is a need for more Latino and bilingual teachers.  

Fuentes said, in their organizing efforts, the Latino parents took as an example, the Parents of Children of African Descent, who put together the Rebound program for failing ninth graders.  

“The example of PCAD is a big factor in our movement,” Fuentes said, describing the newly organized parents as “a hopeful movement of grassroots awareness acting to change things.” 

The June 11 meeting begins at 6:45 p.m. at St. Joseph the Worker Church, 1640 Addison St. For information call 658-2467.