SALEM, Ore.–Gerardo Jimenez is a senior in high school, but he still remembers his first day of first grade as a Spanish-speaking 6-year-old entering a new school in Salem.

“I was afraid to go to school,” he recounted Tuesday at the Capitol. “But they put me in a bilingual class with other students similar to me.

That made me more comfortable and made me continue my education. Without bilingual education, I would have dropped out a long time ago.”

Jimenez joined more than 50 educators, minority advocates and legislators who gathered in Salem to sing the praises of bilingual education — and attack Senate Bill 919, which would ban bilingual education from Oregon’s public schools.

Critics said the bill would affect about 43,000 children who receive instruction in their native tongues while learning English.

The proposed legislation is modeled after existing laws in California and Arizona, where all students are taught only in English, and non-English speaking students are placed in special English “immersion” classes for up to a year.

Parents could waive the requirement to have their children participate, but schools would be required to offer the immersion classes — and teachers who instructed students in a language other than English could have their licenses revoked.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, cited research that suggests that students in California have excelled as a result of English immersion programs. He said immersion programs in California have proved so popular that a majority of Hispanics in that state now favor them.

Starr chairs the Senate Education Committee, which heard several hours of testimony on his bill Tuesday, almost all of it in opposition.

Immersion in English “is the only way to rapidly advance students and allow them to reach their potential in earning capacity and full citizenship in our society,” Starr said. “Our current system is failing these students miserably and wasting countless taxpayer dollars in doing so.”

But Starr’s committee vice chairwoman, Sen. Susan Castillo, D-Eugene, said she is “totally opposed” to the legislation, which she said “has set off real shock waves in the Latino community and other (minority) communities.”

Castillo is the Legislature’s first Hispanic member.

She and other observers said they don’t believe Starr’s bill has much support — but that didn’t stop opponents from lining up to testify or staging an earlier news conference and demonstration on the Capitol steps.
Some critics denounced the bill as racist and “cultural genocide.”

State Rep. Cliff Zauner, R-Woodburn, who has filed a similar bill in the House, said immersion programs are important because they stave off “bad speaking habits” and help non-English-speaking citizens interact socially.
He said such programs do not force families to abandon their native cultures, and that monolingual children are able to learn a second language quickly if given the chance.

“We underestimate the agility of a child’s mind,” he said.

But Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, said she’s watched her Latino daughter excel in a bilingual kindergarten class — along with Spanish-speaking kindergartners. She said it’s wrong to require all school districts to offer immersion programs.

“This bill is really about who we are as (Oregonians): Who do we welcome and how do we welcome them into our community?” she said.

Others said it makes no sense to abandon bilingual education at a time when the Hispanic population is growing faster than any other ethnic group in Oregon. According to the 2000 Census, the Latino population in the state more than doubled since 1990, from 105,000 to 275,000.

Several educators said improved test scores among Hispanic students in California have less to do with English immersion programs and more to do with the state’s renewed commitment to school reform and smaller class sizes.

Considerable research shows that students learn English better if they first gain literacy in their own language, several people testified.

“People only get to learn to read once,” said Henry Wiens, a Hillsboro School District administrator. “Doesn’t it make sense that a person who has grown up speaking Spanish will learn to read best if they learn it in Spanish?”

Forest Grove schools Superintendent Jack Musser said the bill reflects a
“one size fits all” mentality to English instruction and a loss of local control.

He bragged that two elementary schools in his district — both with a majority of Hispanic students and bilingual education programs in place —
were recently rated “exceptional” by the state.

Dovie Trevino, a professor of bilingual education at Western Oregon University, said she questions the motives behind the legislation.

“It has nothing to do with education,” she said. “It’s about punishing people for speaking the language of their home.”

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