18 Languages Echo at 'Mini-U.N.' School

Educators wonder whether English law will complicate an already difficult job

Raisa Ayrapetova, a refugee from Armenia, speaks Russian, Armenian, Turkish and English — none of the native languages of students in her second- and third-grade class at Backman Elementary in Salt Lake City. On this day, Ayrapetova, who teaches English as a second language, is trying to explain some basic words, the names of various parts of the body. Redur, who is from Iraq and has been in school one week, is confused.

“What is ‘face’ in your language?” she says, turning to Chinar and Wani, two girls who came here from Iraq. The girls explain the concept to Redur in Kurdish.

Redur utters something in his native tongue, then smiles and says “face” in English. So it goes in a school like Backman, where students speak 18 languages and there are more children who don’t speak English than do. The school is a study in how Utah educators are trying to meet the needs of an exploding population of non-English speaking students. One teacher describes Backman, which has 550 students, as a mini-United Nations.

Because of the school’s diverse population, it must offer nearly every service in several languages. Classroom instruction, counseling, parent-teacher conferences, even bulletin boards, are multilingual. A display at the school asks parents to “Join Backman PTA” in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Tongan and Portuguese.

Educators at this school, and throughout the state, wonder what will happen to such multilingualism if Utahns vote to make English the official language of
govern- ment.

The ballot measure, known as Initiative A, requires government business be conducted in English, but excludes public education. Instead, the measure requires the State Board of Education to create rules that urge children and adults to learn English as quickly as possible and expand English as a Second Language programs.

The demand is already high for such classes, particularly at the adult level, where waiting lists are typical.

The attorney general’s office says districts could continue communicating with students and parents in other languages, but the opinion did not ease educators’ fears.

Some Utah educators believe such a mandate would open the door to a ban on bilingual education, used in some Utah schools. California, which adopted an Official English law in 1986, banned bilingual education two years ago; Arizona voters, who approved an English-only provision in 1988 which was later ruled unconstitutional, will consider doing the same this November.

Mostly, educators don’t like what the proposed law implies.

“It sends a message we don’t value diversity in all its forms, language included, that monolingualism is the goal,” said Darline Robles, superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, in which 30 percent of the 25,000 students have limited English skills.

State Superintendent Steven Laing, the Utah Education Association and Teachers of English as a Second Language also oppose the measure. The State Board of Education has taken a neutral stance.

Schools Struggle: Throughout the state, the number of students who speak little or no English is growing faster than schools can handle them. Called English Language Learners, their ranks have swelled by 160 percent in seven years, from 24,000 in 1992 to 40,000 last school year, according to data from the Utah State Office of Education. The bulk of these students attend schools in the larger Wasatch Front school districts, though smaller districts, like Logan, Cache, Provo and Iron, are growing more diverse, too.

Nearly every district struggles to meet the students’ needs. They can’t find enough teachers trained to teach English as a second language and funds are scarce for such classes.

As a result, nine of the state’s 40 districts are under review by the Office of Civil Rights, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, for not providing adequate services to non-English speakers.

Juanita Benioni, former equity officer for the Granite School District, believes an official English law will open the door to more federal investigations of Utah schools. Granite is one of the nine schools under review.

“I know there are school administrators that will say, ‘English is the official language. Why do we have to do anything else in other languages?’ ” she said.

To prevent such sentiment, the State Office of Education recently placed a document titled “Immigrant Student’s Rights to Public Education” on one of its Web pages, which also greets visitors in 12 languages. It also added a site where schools can download state-required forms, like fee waivers, in several languages, including Spanish, Laotian, Russian, Tongan, Vietnamese and Serbo-Croatian. So far, school districts have been responsible for translating documents on their own.

The Salt Lake City School District has probably done more than any other to help English-learners. Ninety-six languages are spoken in the district and in 10 elementary schools, English is a foreign language for more than 40 percent of the students.

The district has 75 people it taps as interpreters during parent-teacher conferences, school registration and special education meetings. It translates documents into 27 languages, including student handbooks and state- or district-required forms. Report cards are sent home in Spanish upon request and some students are tested in that language.

The district also created a newsletter for and about refugee families, called Friends 4 Ever, which it plans to print in Arabic and Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian.

“We really want to be able to communicate with parents, which is why so much energy is put into translating and interpreting,” said Sandra Buendia, the district’s alternative language services coordinator.

The district will spend $ 740,541 — less than 1 percent of its annual budget
— this year on alternative language services, which includes such things as document translations and ESL classes.

School board officials in the Salt Lake City district have officially opposed making English the state’s official language, in part because there is so much diversity in their schools.

Multilingual Mix: Supporters of the measure say it is meant to unite Americans and help teach immigrants English. But Backman Principal James DeNeff doesn’t see that in the initiative: “I’m just worried about the kids’ culture and heritage being forgotten,” he said.

He knows from experience that can happen. In the past, some of Backman’s Latino students refused to speak Spanish in school “because they were ashamed of their whole heritage,” said school counselor Sherry Daniels.

During the past couple of years, the school has tried to make students feel proud of their native land through cultural activities. They read books in Spanish, make Mexican food and art projects that celebrate the ancient Aztecs.

About 52 percent of Backman students speak Spanish; many of their families move here straight from Mexico.

Second-grade teacher Melanie Robbins lets students work in Spanish if they need to — though she relies on another teacher to translate the work.

“Your kids, they come with their background, and as a classroom teacher you begin wherever they are. It’s not like there’s a choice.”

To further help them, Backman created a bilingual program in every grade, where Spanish-speaking students learn to read, write and speak their native language as well as English. More English is added in the bilingual classes as students get older.

Three years ago, Backman hired Art Lujan as a student-parent advocate for the school’s Spanish speakers. He helps parents fill out school paperwork, goes to dentist appointments with them, fills out Medicaid forms, finds them winter clothing or whatever else they need. Students call him “uncle” and “grandpa.”

There’s also a coordinator in charge of an orientation program for Backman’s refugee students, who largely come from Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. The refugees get tutors who know their native languages and teachers assign them buddies.

“They’re not going to learn English in a week,” said bilingual teacher Paula Marquez, explaining why students need help in their native tongues.

e-mail: hmay@sltrib.com

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