Bilingual students discover inequality

MADERA—In a school named for Thomas Jefferson, Anita Cortes is putting to the test his declaration that all men are created equal.

One of 177 bilingual students housed in worn-down trailers at Jefferson Junior High School in Madera, Anita, 14, started asking questions about three weeks ago. Parents took notice, and now they are pushing the school for answers.

Here’s what they want to know:

* Why are the bilingual students physically isolated from the rest of the school, a situation that Spanish-speakers believe is keeping them from learning English from other students?

* Why do only the bilingual students have battered desks, no computers and no access to elective classes like cooking and shop?

* Why don’t they have modern dictionaries and basic science equipment such as a sink and running water?

‘We just want them to have the same things as the other students,’ parent Margarita Muniz said in Spanish. ‘Is that a lot to ask?’

Joe Vived, the school’s principal, said many of the complaints were valid and that he was working to address them. What remains unclear is why conditions in the bilingual classrooms ever reached the point where a 14-year-old had to make adults notice the problem.

Some changes were already in motion before Anita wrote the principal to complain. A big one is that in the next two weeks or so the bilingual students will be moved from the old trailers, whose roofs leak, to new portable classrooms.

Anita and others believe this will still leave the bilingual students isolated, however.

‘Already we’re separated from the other students, and now they want to stick us in the back of the school,’ said Lucila Garcia, an eighth-grader.

Vived said Friday that the school plans to integrate the bilingual students more as part of a school restructuring plan that creates several smaller schools within a school.

Vived said he had in the last two weeks asked the school custodian to round up surplus newer chairs and desks for bilingual students. He said he did not know why furniture in the bilingual classrooms was decades old, because the rest of the school’s furniture was replaced about five years ago – before Vived came to the school.

Vived said he had also just arranged for the bilingual science class to rotate into a science classroom as needed. The reason: The science classrooms in the rest of the school have sinks, running water and science equipment to perform experiments.

The bilingual science class does not even have tables on which to perform experiments. Students sit at desks with tilted tops and watch their teacher. In a pinch they work on the floor.

A similar lack of materials exists in the bilingual social studies class, said Irene Gonzalez, who has been the school’s bilingual resource teacher since November. There is a need for wall maps, globes and supplementary reading materials.

After a Bee reporter inquired about the availability of state bilingual funds for materials, Madera Unified’s district office notified Vived that about $ 11,000 was available for that use.

Under state law, however, those funds are not supposed to be used just to get bilingual students up to par with the rest of the crowd. The concept is that it is extra money for extra needs.

‘The situations should be parallel, and there are problems,’ Gonzalez said.

On the lack of computers, Gonzalez said five computers for bilingual students had been put in storage pending the move into the new classrooms. But a gaping hole exists: She said the school had no software in Spanish, even though about one in three students had been identified as limited-English speaking.

James Comegys, a science teacher and chairman of the school’s bilingual department, said many of the same issues had been discussed before.

‘Every time we bring up these questions, nothing happens,’ he said. ‘There’s always a different reason.’

Vived said he had tried to be responsive, and that one of the problems had been a succession of bilingual resource teachers, each bearing different philosophies.

Two years ago, for example, Vived said the school tried placing the bilingual students in elective classes with the rest of the students.

But he and the staff concluded that bilingual students were getting lost and needed support that monolingual teachers could not provide.

Anita said she hopes progress is made quickly, if not for herself then for others.

‘I have younger cousins, brothers,’ she said in Spanish. ‘I don’t want them to be in these same conditions.’

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