About 25 students, parents and grandparents ignited a spark of activism in Santa Monica's Latino community by marching this week to protest cuts in bilingual education in the city's schools.
The nine-block march Tuesday through quiet neighborhoods and past a wall of gang graffiti ended at the headquarters of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where demonstrators occupied the lobby and confronted officials.
"This school district is not doing enough for brown people, and we are here to protest that," said Sammy Heredia, a UCLA student raised in Santa Monica. "Chicanos in this community are not given a chance to succeed. We go to (school) counselors and are not heard."
Protest leader Margarita Losoya, who has two children in Santa Monica schools, said students with limited ability in English are less likely to graduate, to go on to college or to get good jobs.
"Rather than getting ahead, our children are falling back," Losoya asked.
The lack of adequate bilingual education is often cited as one of the causes behind a soaring dropout rate among Latinos throughout the country.
The demonstrators, who chanted slogans and carried banners, complained that there are only four English-as-a-Second Language instructors at the elementary school level in Santa Monica, down from seven last year.
And that decline comes despite a growing enrollment of minority children who are not fluent in English, Losoya said. Of 4,232 children registered in elementary schools in Santa Monica, 1,068 are considered to have limited proficiency in English. Of that number, 893 are Latinos.
Two school district officials met the demonstrators in the lobby, thanked them for coming and defended the district's bilingual education programs. Assistant Supt. Mark Karadenes and Rita Esquivel, assistant to the superintendent, urged the demonstrators to "refocus energies" and make their position known at Board of Education meetings where policies are set.
Karadenes said there were no plans to further cut back the number of ESL teachers. He said there is a total of 10 throughout the system, plus another 38 teachers, most of whom are bilingual, who work with Spanish-speaking elementary students.
The Santa Monica system has also instituted an immersion program at one school and is moving toward more bilingual instruction rather than ESL classes, which remove students from the mainstream curriculum, Esquivel said.
But board members and Latino activists have often concurred that not enough is being done for children whose native language is not English.
The group that marched Tuesday also protested a transportation committee recommendation to the board to discontinue the busing of students who used to go to the Madison School, which was closed several years ago. That closing provoked a similar protest by Latino parents and students.
Losoya said that ending the busing would strand many Latino children.
Esquivel cautioned, however, that the recommendation is not binding and has yet to be considered by the board.
Organizers acknowledged that the turnout for Tuesday's march was disappointing. But they said it was only a beginning.
"A lot more will have to come out. This is a beginning; it'll be a long battle," said Hector Perez-Pacheco, who until recently ran a tutoring program out of the Santa Monica-based Latino Resource Center.
20% of Population
Although some estimates put the percentage of Latinos in Santa Monica as high as 20% of the population, activists admit political organizing has been spotty and Latinos have failed to significantly influence city leadership.
Earlier this year, however, the Westside's first chapter of the Mexican-American Political Assn. was formed in Santa Monica in an effort to channel Latino activism. The association's leaders listed education as a top priority.