English, Por Favor

Hispanics traditionally supported bilingual education, but many Spanish-speaking parents now say it holds children back.

In Mexican Spanish, Maria Sierra explained why she camped out one cold night four years ago to make sure her son attended a school that taught only in English.

“School in two languages doesn’t work,” the Santa Ana glassworks technician said. “I don’t want him to have the difficulties we’ve had. In this country, you need English. “

In political columns, Congress and the state Legislature, bilingual education is under attack. “Official English” bills circulating in Washington could eliminate some bilingual-education programs. Republicans assail bilingual teaching as wasteful and ineffective. And Wednesday in Sacramento, the Assembly Education Committee passed a bill by Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos, that would go a step further toward removing the state’s emphasis on native-language instruction.

While the debate has divided political parties and mobilized bilingual-education proponents, anyone looking to Hispanics for guidance will find that these traditional supporters of bilingual education are as divided as everyone else.

As the national debate turns nasty, many Spanish speakers such as the Sierras are joining the backlash against bilingual education.

In Brooklyn last fall, a group of Spanish-speaking parents filed suit against the state commissioner of education charging that New York state allows school districts to keep students in Spanish-only classes too long. The lawsuit was dismissed but succeeded in airing widespread discontent among the Hispanic parents.

In Los Angeles this year, recent Mexican immigrants pulled about 100 students out of Ninth Street School for four days to protest the way the bilingual-education program was being run. Parents complained that their kids weren’t learning English.

In Orange County, parents are registering their own modest protest by moving their children out of Spanish instruction and into schools and classrooms teaching in English.

Greenville Fundamental in Santa Ana has a smaller percentage of limited-English students than other elementaries in Santa Ana Unified School District. But over the years the number of Spanish-speaking parents choosing the school’s English-only curriculum has grown, Principal Melanie Champion said.

“We have 145 limited-English students now. Seven years ago we had 60,” she said. “Parents come for a lot of reasons, but mainly for the English-only instruction. The parents feel their children will become fluent in English through our program. “

Maria and Benito Sierra are among them. Four years ago they waited in long lines to register their son Uzziel, now a third-grader at Greenville. An English-only education, they believe, will give their son a head start in America.

“At school, it should be English,” Maria Sierra said. “We are in foreign lands now. And in foreign lands you speak the foreign language. We don’t want him to speak macerated English like we do. ” Parents who oppose bilingual instruction still lack a strong organized voice to speak for them. Their numbers are hard to gauge; they exist primarily as anecdotes to irritate Hispanic activists striving to retain the bilingual programs that have grown in the past decades.

Many Hispanics are wary of “English only. ” And for some, rejecting Spanish is tantamount to rejecting heritage.

“I have a friend _ she’s Mexican _ who doesn’t like bilingual education, who thinks teachers keep all the money,” said Maria Alvarez of Costa Mesa, whose son and three daughters went through bilingual programs. “This is a person who doesn’t even want her children to learn Spanish. She is denying her own roots. To me this kind of person is shameful. “

Everyone agrees the children need to learn English. The question is how.

In California, 30 percent of non-English speakers are taught in their own language. These programs are based on studies that suggest students do best in school if they are slowly introduced to English. Other studies suggest immersion leads to quick language acquisition.

Most students in California are taught only in English. But conservatives have rallied against native-language instruction.

The high-profile protests among Hispanics have provided endless fodder for the opponents of bilingual education.

After the Brooklyn parents sued the state, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal took up their cause.

“In other words, extensive bilingual ed is extensive discrimination,” the editorial concluded.

Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who helped lead the group of parents in the boycott of Ninth Street School, bristles at conservative “I told you so’s. ” She insists that she still believes in bilingual education, though not with how it is sometimes implemented.

“The unfortunate side effect was that the parents were used to further other agendas on the right,” Callaghan said. “Some liberals felt our parents shouldn’t have done what they did. But why ask them to write off the future of their children? “

Hispanics who oppose bilingual education also face attacks from other Hispanics.

Jesus Montes believes that bilingual education segregates Spanish speakers. When he suggested at a church gathering that the home was the best place to teach Spanish, some people went on the offensive.

“They didn’t like it,” Montes said. “They said I was putting down my own language. “

Sister Kathleen Maire of East Brooklyn Congregations helped organize the Brooklyn parents in their lawsuit. She said it was difficult to get public support from Hispanic leaders.

“The Latino population is very careful about this issue because of the political ramifications,” Maire said. “Privately they know something’s wrong, but you’re not going to get public support. “

So the real debate is taking place outside the Washington Beltway, in the homes and bodegas of heavily Hispanic school districts thousands of miles away.

In a small house on Orange Avenue in Santa Ana, a block from Edison Elementary, Olivia Quintana tried to explain why a Spanish speaker would want English for her children.

As a bilingual, Quintana wants her three children to have the advantages of two languages. As a school volunteer, she has seen bilingual education help many students. She’s even lobbied for more money for bilingual instruction.

But when it came to her children, she rejected instruction in Spanish. Ten years ago, she took her daughter Monica out of her first-grade native-language class and put her in an English-only course, an option available to everyone.

“Para mi,” she begins. “For me, bilingual education doesn’t work. I think sometimes it’s racist to keep the kids apart, not give them the same opportunity to learn in English that everyone else has. “

Her story echoes that of Janice Gonzalez.

Gonzalez believes that bilingual instruction can help many students. But when her son Andrew began to stall at Fullerton’s Richman Elementary, she pulled him out of the Spanish curriculum.

“I thought maybe it was confusing him,” she said.

As a family, the Gonzalezes embody the mixed feelings toward bilingual education.

Janice Gonzalez’s older daughter Monica, 22, is studying Spanish at California State University, Fullerton, hoping to become a teacher.

Monica explained her views on bilingual education: “I’m pretty split. It’s not an easy topic. “

Ultimately, some parents say, they’re not deciding between languages. Just on who is best equipped to teach them.

“The thing is, sometimes they’re not teaching them good Spanish at school,” said Eduardo Villela, who chose an English-only curriculum for his children at Edison Elementary. “A lot of them are Americans teaching in Spanish. I respect their efforts. They deserve a lot of credit and it’s incredible what they’re doing. But the truth is, I’m in a better position to teach my kids Spanish and they’re in a better position to teach them English. ” Register staff writer Dan Weintraub contributed to this report.

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