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Going Where Schools Can't

Although Proposition 227 has spelled an end to most bilingual education, public libraries are offering increasingly popular reading programs in two languages.

November 22, 1998|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"You kids like Halloween?" Lynwood children's librarian Pamela Woods asked the 15 squirming children seated on a colorful carpet at her feet.

"Yeah!" they hollered as she opened an oversized book on how to grow and carve Halloween pumpkins.

As Woods read, the youngsters, mostly Latino children, hung on her every word. But after each passage, their eyes turned to Maxi Rodriguez, a bilingual library staffer who sat next to Woods, translating the words into Spanish. Pumpkins became calabazas and a carving knife became a cuchillo.

Although Proposition 227 has dismantled most bilingual education programs in public schools, public libraries--under no such restriction--are trumpeting these kinds of bilingual programs and working to offer more.

The programs, including Spanish-language book sections and bilingual library tours for visiting classes, are at the heart of a growing effort by public libraries in heavily Latino communities to increase patronage among the region's Spanish-speaking population.

Under one program, Spanish-speaking library workers venture into clinics and hospitals to encourage pregnant Latinas to visit the libraries and read to their babies.

The main goal of the bilingual programs is to simply encourage Latino children to pick up a book--in any language--and to make regular visits to a library.

Educators believe that there is a strong tie between literacy rates and exposure to books early in life, and that children who have access to books develop the early skills needed to read and have a greater chance of becoming proficient readers.

"When they are interested in books they start reading," said Barbara Lewis, a board member with the Southern California chapter of Reading Is Fundamental, a national literacy program.

In reaching out to the Latino community, libraries are targeting a stubborn illiteracy problem.

In California, 81% of Latino fourth-grade students read below the level necessary to do satisfactory work in school, compared to 71% of African American students, 44% of white students and 23% of Asian Americans, according to the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

At least 16 libraries throughout the county offer bilingual story-reading programs, with more on the way.

A few parents oppose the bilingual efforts, saying the dual language programs may confuse children.

"I think they should stick to one language," said William Castillo, who recently took his 4-year-old son, Michael, to a bilingual story-reading program in South Gate.

The libraries' bilingual efforts have also received lukewarm support from advocates of Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative voters approved in June.

"We have no problem with reading in other languages in community-based programs," said Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for English for the Children, the group that backed Proposition 227. "There should, however, be a larger portion of the program in English."

Eileen Tokar, the library services manager at South Gate's Leland Weaver Library, which operates a weekly bilingual story-reading program, said that most patrons support the effort. "Other parents just feel it's a more welcoming atmosphere to offer Spanish. We try to go along with what the community needs," she said.

Educators say bilingual children benefit from being read to both in their primary language and in English.

"The main idea is to connect a child with a book on a subject they love," said Isabel Schon, director of the Center for the Study of Books in Spanish for Children and Adolescents at Cal State San Marcos. "If Spanish is their language, it has to be done in Spanish."

But in some Latino communities, such as Pico Rivera in southeast Los Angeles County and Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley, efforts to launch bilingual programs have been hampered by a shortage of bilingual library workers.

"The public wants the programs every day, but there is no way we can do that," said Angelica Gracia, Pacoima's senior librarian.

In those libraries where bilingual programs are offered, library workers report a consistently strong turnout.

More than 40 excited children showed up at Leland Weaver Library just before Halloween for a bilingual story reading program. Children came dressed as Power Rangers, vampires and ninjas.

Carmen Melendez, a bilingual library aide, started by leading the children in a nursery rhyme about a cat that could change its colors. She held up several colored pieces of felt in the shape of cats and asked the children to name the colors.

"Blue!" they yelled. "Azul," Melendez translated.

The nursery rhyme was followed by two stories, one that Melendez read in English and Spanish and another that Tokar read just in English.

Bilingual library programs are so popular in Huntington Park, a community that is 92% Latino, that the city's library offers four reading programs for four age groups.

An infant reading program is sponsored by the county library system and the county's Department of Health Services. Under the project--called "Begin at the Beginning with Books"--four bilingual workers visit prenatal clinics and hospitals to talk to Spanish-speaking women about the importance of reading to children.

Emilia Molina, a Huntington Park resident, joined the program six months ago, shortly after her daughter Gisselle was born. The child enjoys the reading program, Molina said, particularly the songs that the mothers and children sing together.

But there has been an a unexpected benefit: Molina's 4-year-old daughter, Paula, who tags along with her mother during her library visits before heading off to kindergarten, has taken a keen interest in books.

"My 4-year-old now likes to look at books and picks up books," she said. "It's great."

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