The erasable board in front of the class is covered with math problems.
Multiplication. Addition. Subtraction. Not easy ones like 2 + 2, but tough problems with big numbers like 17,539-9,626.

The students in Norma Valencia’s fourth-grade class at Garcia Elementary School are making her proud, whipping through the problems.

“This is from the fifth-grade book,” she tells them. “You guys are way ahead.”

A girl sitting near the back wearing a blue hair band raises her hand.
Yuliabigail Fonseca wants to answer the next problem.

“Siete. Nueve. Uno. Tres,” Yuliabigail says in Spanish, using her native language. Seven. Nine. One. Three.

“Muy bien,” Valencia says. Very good.

This is a bilingual education classroom, where both English and Spanish are used to teach limited-English students like Yuliabigail, 9, who came from a small town in Sonora, Mexico, in July speaking only Spanish.

Yuli, as her classmates call her, is one of 24 pupils in Valencia’s class,
all of them Latinos and all considered limited-English speakers. Three,
including Yuli, speak Spanish only.

Valencia, a 25-year teaching veteran, teaches mostly in English, translating key sentences as speedy as the flick of a switch.

“Who can tell me what happened in this story?” she asked during a morning reading exercise. “Que pas? en este cuento?”

“This way,” Valencia said, “I can explain key concepts to the kids and they don’t feel lost. They feel like they are part of the group and they can keep up at grade level.”

Valencia’s students are allowed to respond in whichever language they feel most comfortable. Most of Valencia’s students respond in English. A few like Yuli, answer only in Spanish. The same for her journal; Yuli writes in Spanish. And with books. At the library, some of the students select books in English. Yuli picks two books from the Goosebumps series, only in Spanish, “La maldici?n de la momia” (Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb) and “No bajes al sotano” (Stay Out of the Basement).

In Yuli’s case, the approach seems to be working.

She raises her hand often, responding to questions and instructions even when Valencia speaks English.

“Time to go back to your chairs,” Valencia said after a reading lesson. Yuli gathered her books and headed back to her desk without hesitation.

“Thumbs up if that’s correct,” Valencia said. Yuli raises her thumb.

Over time, Valencia says, Yuli will gradually pick up more English, without falling behind, or losing her primary language.

The approach is called transitional bilingual education. More Spanish is used than English at earlier grade levels, Valencia says, the idea being that kids acquire a second language easier if they are grounded in their primary language first.

As the students progress from grade to grade, the amount of classroom Spanish diminishes. At least that’s the way the see-saw approach is supposed to work.

Until last year, however, some students were showing up in Valencia’s fourth-grade class still speaking mostly Spanish. Textbooks were written in Spanish, not English. This made Valencia uncomfortable.

“I did not see the kids transitioning into English as quickly as they should have been,” she said. “I saw kids that had been here since Head Start
(preschool) and kindergarten and they were still in monolingual Spanish at fourth grade or not at the level of English where they should have been.”

Over the summer, a Murphy School District committee revamped the bilingual programs, instructing teachers like Valencia to place greater emphasis on English.

The push for change came from many corners, Valencia says, including parents, teachers and administrators. But the Nov. 7 ballot initiative to ban bilingual education also played a role, she said.

Valencia has happily complied with the new mandate. In the past, she estimates, about 70 percent of her teaching was conducted in Spanish. Now it’s more like 40 percent.

Next year, it may be zero.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8312.

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