Anti-bilingual activist visits Denver school

Chats with students fail to sway Unz on issue

Ron Unz made his first visit to a Colorado classroom Wednesday, and while he learned a few things from the 9-year-olds, he saw nothing to convince him bilingual education works.

Unz became a national figure for saying bilingual education is so flawed that state constitutional amendments are needed to ban it. Though he is the co-author of Amendment 31, Colorado’s anti-bilingual amendment, he had never visited a school here.

“It isn’t obvious to me what really it contributes to my understanding of the program,” he said. “What if, for example, they spoke English reasonably well but their test scores were very, very low?”

On his visit Wednesday to Richard T. Castro Elementary, he quietly observed for about 30 seconds and then chatted with the students. He found some could chat back, but some couldn’t.

Castro is a school where 45 percent of students are native Spanish speakers. The school has an “unsatisfactory” rating from the state based on its Colorado Student Assessment Program test scores.

Joining the field trip was Rita Montero, the former bilingual advocate who turned against the technique and now heads Unz’s Colorado organization. Aside from a brief visit to a California kindergarten, it was Unz’s first trip to a school since 1998, when he launched his first anti-bilingual initiative. He spearheaded a similar initiative in Arizona and is doing so in Massachusetts this year, but never asked to see schools in either state.

At The Denver Post’s suggestion, Unz and Montero visited Castro fourth-grade teacher Diego Ceron. The complexities of his job were immediately evident.

“I’m confused,” Unz said. “If this is a transitional class, why would there be blond kids and black kids?”

Ceron is an ELA-S teacher – meaning English Language Acquisition for kids who speak mostly Spanish. But he swaps math classes with a colleague and was teaching math – in English – to the other teacher’s ELA-E kids. That’s an in-between phase where native Spanish speakers are grouped together, with some English speakers, and learn in English.

Unz peppered the children with questions: Where were you born? Do your parents speak English? Do you like math?

Their answers could have provided ammunition for either side of the bilingual debate. “These kids really talk a lot of English!” Montero said.

But after half an hour chatting with three 9-year-olds, Unz said something was troubling him.

All had been at Castro since kindergarten or first grade. The only one who constantly had to ask her friends for translations was the Denver native. The others, Cassandra Mendez, who was born in Texas, and Diana Chacon, who is from Mexico, both said they learned English chiefly from relatives.

“Now that’s not much of a sample size, but it is an interesting pattern,” Unz said. “The one taught by the public schools is the one having the most trouble with English.”

Classes switched, and in came Ceron’s ELA-S bunch. Many were stumped by simple questions like, “What’s your name?”

“What surprised me a bit – and again, it’s a small sample size – is that some of these kids have been here nine months and didn’t seem to know a single word of English,” Unz said later.

“I was surprised by the little kid from Salvador who knew all kinds of words,” Montero said. “He’s only been here nine days.”

“Nine days? Probably watches a lot of TV,” Unz said.

Ceron’s job gets even more complex. Among the ELA-S kids, five cannot function at all in English, so he teaches lessons in Spanish to them and in English to the other six.

Unz and Montero’s more streamlined plan – put off “content areas” like math until a one-year immersion course is completed – could work, Ceron said. The trade-off would be the English-learners falling behind their age group academically, he said.

Principal Frank Gonzales said he shares Unz’s goal of English acquisition: “As soon as they come in, we start teaching them English.”

What if they had to do so without Spanish-language support, which Amendment 31 would abolish?

“I have issues with that,” Gonzales said. “If we can use students’ native language to help them improve in the academic realm, then do it. To limit the resources available to them, that’s not good for kids.”

Unz was in town to address business leaders and the Denver school board about Amendment 31. He has said the initiative is aimed at Denver, yet it would also affect Colorado’s other school districts.

Ironically, Denver might be the only district unaffected by the amendment because its bilingual program is governed by a federal consent decree.

About 23,000 schoolchildren are in some form of bilingual education in Colorado, according to a recent study by the University of Colorado School of Education. That’s 3 percent of the state’s 742,000 public-school students.

Most English-learners in Colorado are in English as a Second Language programs that are similar to the immersion approach Unz favors, the report said.

After thanking Gonzales for the visit, Unz resumed a series of cellphone calls about wire transfers, pausing to reflect on his new “anecdotal data.”

“Very interesting,” he said.

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