The ‘English-only’ debate is raging across the country. But N.M. schools have been proving that bilingual programs — and not just simple ones — are worthwhile and feasible.

For years, bilingual education has had a slightly different meaning in New Mexico than in other states.

Unlike most states, New Mexico educators go beyond just teaching English to immigrant students. State-funded bilingual programs here also focus on preserving home languages and cultures for immigrants and other students.

Republican leaders in Congress and state legislatures across the country are embracing an “English-only” and “English-first” policy in an attempt to establish English as the United States’ official language.

Many bilingual educators, such as Barcelona Elementary Principal Cecilia Martinez-Sanchez, are disturbed by comments from House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who have suggested doing away with bilingual education — which costs taxpayers millions each year.

Last month, Martinez-Sanchez and four other principals visited with congressional leaders, including Sen. Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, in Domenici’s Washington, D.C., office.

“I told Senator Domenici that I am very concerned about possible cuts to bilingual education and the talk about English only,” said Martinez-Sanchez, who was in Washington to receive an award for Barcelona. The South Valley school, at 2311 Barcelona Road S.W., was one of five schools nationwide recognized by Hispanic Magazine for excellence in work with Hispanic students.

“Barcelona’s program is an enrichment program that not only meets the needs of Spanish-speaking children learning English,” Martinez-Sanchez said. “Our bilingual/multicultural program teaches all of the other children a second language as well, while enriching English-language development and enhancing different cultures.

“(Domenici) was really interested. I told him, ‘You need to come and see this,’ and he did.”

Domenici — who said he is “definitely a pro-bilingual senator” — visited Barcelona last week.

“I think it should be noted that, while there currently is some kind of fury about English only and bilingual education, bilingual ed has been around for a long time,” Domenici said in an interview.

“And while I’m still fully in support of Sen. Dole for president, he has spoken out in favor of English only,” Domenici said. “I have clearly told him he was wrong for that. I’m pushing him very hard to be for bilingual education and bilingual funding.

“At Barcelona, it seemed to me, bilingual ed is a very special kind of thing that I wish existed well beyond Albuquerque and New Mexico.”

Martinez-Sanchez said she hopes Domenici will have some influence over Dole and Gingrich.

“We gave him a video to take back to Washington in case he has to convince certain colleagues how positive bilingual education can be.” The video showed how the program works.

At Barcelona — a school where about 80 percent of the students are Hispanic and more than 60 families speak no English — signs of bilingualism are everywhere.

Students recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in English and Spanish. Signs in the hallways and classrooms have messages in both languages. For an hour each day, all Barcelona students are either acquiring or improving Spanish-speaking skills.

In Louise Mastrovito’s fourth-grade class, students — most of whom have grown up speaking only English — read and translate Spanish stories into English. Mastrovito picks out Spanish words in the stories, and the kids shoot back the English version almost before she finishes.

Across the 49-year-old school’s campus, in a tiny portable building, Laura Hidalgo quizzes a handful of monolingual, Spanish-speaking students who are learning to identify los partes del cuerpo, or body parts, in English.

Jose Zavala, a 6-year-old monolingual student, easily identified Hidalgo’s arm, leg, eyes and nose in English as she pointed to each. But when she pointed to her mouth, Zavala struggled for a second and said “ear.” With the help of another giggling student, an embarrassed Zavala said, “Si, mouth.”

At Barcelona, teachers also work with bilingual and Spanish-speaking families to integrate various cultural and reading programs into bilingual education.

Juntos Para Los Ninos is a program where teachers visit with parents and children at school and at home twice a week. A second, newer parent- involvement program, called Primer Exito, deals specifically with Spanish- speaking students and their families, teaching them parenting skills, homework skills and language development.

As a result, said Barcelona principals, teachers and parents, all students are becoming proficient in English and Spanish. Many are reading above their grade level, and test scores are improving by leaps and bounds.

Twice a week, Janet Pacheco sits in a classroom with her daughter Latoya and a bilingual teacher, who helps parents and students at home and at school adjust to kindergarten.

“My daughter’s improved a lot,” Pacheco said. “It’s still hard for her, but now, she likes school a lot.

“And I really like that they’re required to learn in Spanish, because they need it. I don’t know much Spanish, so I’m learning while they’re learning. We have family that speaks nothing but Spanish, and it’s nice when you can have a conversation with them.”

APS received about $11 million from the state last year for various bilingual programs in all but 19 Albuquerque schools.

The district used the money for three programs for students with limited English skills:

* An English-Spanish bilingual program at 57 schools that teaches English while math, history, Spanish-language arts and other subjects are taught in Spanish. Workers are also on hand to help students whose home language is not English or Spanish.

* An English-as-a-second-language program at 11 schools.

* One-to-one tutoring at 32 schools.

Some schools, like Barcelona, combine bilingual-education dollars with other state and federal money, such as Title 1 remedial reading, to come up with a schoolwide alternative language/reading program.

As a result of an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights, APS will have to provide bilingual-education programs at every school by next year.

Barcelona’s emphasis on language development, literature enrichment, and literacy in Spanish and English were commended by Hispanic Magazine.

Barcelona’s reputation for its bilingual-education programs has attracted several bilingual teachers at a time when APS is struggling to keep qualified bilingual teachers. APS employs 190 bilingual and English-as-a-second- language teachers, but many bilingual teachers are soon recruited by school districts in other states that pay higher salaries.

“We have great teachers here,” said Rona Fisher, assistant principal at Barcelona. “A lot of bilingual teachers are attracted to Barcelona because of what we do. Someone who wasn’t interested in the bilingual program wouldn’t even come here.”

But not every teacher at Barcelona is bilingual.

Dinah Pierotti, who teaches kindergarten with a bilingual teacher, said her background in Spanish consists only of a couple of classes in college.

“I feel comfortable here,” Pierotti said. “These kids are teaching me as well.

“If you live in Albuquerque, you hear a lot of Spanish. I think it’s important for the kids to continue to learn Spanish from a cultural perspective. Their families speak the language. It’s part of this state.”

Even with the positives of bilingual education, critics around the country contend that bilingual education costs too much and is not preparing non- English-speaking students for an English-dominated society.

Several school districts, including APS, were criticized recently by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights because alternative language programs failed to meet federal guidelines.

Federal officials found several problems with APS’ alternative language programs, including instances in which American Indian and Asian students not fluent in English were placed in bilingual classes for Spanish speakers.

In other cases, non-English-speaking students were placed in special- education classes and weren’t provided with English-language instruction.

APS officials are working on a plan, as part of a negotiated agreement with federal officials, to teach all students with limited English skills. APS stands to lose millions of federal dollars if it doesn’t comply.

Though APS is working to correct many of those problems, both APS and state officials maintain New Mexico still is seen by other states as a model for bilingual education.

“Our district and state philosophy is somewhat unique . . . because while we help students learn English, we want them to continue to develop their home language,” said Virginia Duran-Ginn, supervisor of bilingual and cross- cultural education at APS. “We want them to be truly bilingual. We don’t perceive that there is something wrong and the only way to fix it is by giving kids English.

“There is no argument that we need to teach English,” Duran-Ginn said. “But we also have to value the home language and culture where possible to be able to help these children.”

Mary Jean Habermann, director of Bilingual Multicultural Education at the state Department of Education, said preserving Spanish and American Indian languages in New Mexico, while still teaching English, is vital to helping students to progress.

“The idea behind bilingual education is to get students to be fully productive,” Habermann said. “In order to get there, we should not sacrifice the students’ ability to learn concepts. So you use the home language so students have the same opportunity to learn concepts as English-speaking students have.”


* Bilingual-education programs cost the state about $31.5 million; $11 million went to Albuquerque Public Schools.

* More than 81,000 New Mexico students were eligible for bilingual education; about 26,000 of those students were in 57 Albuquerque schools.

* Several New Mexico schools also qualified for a portion of $6.8 million — the most of any state — in Title 7 federal grant money for specific bilingual-education programs. Albuquerque’s Rio Grande High School is the only APS school currently with a Title 7 grant: a five-year, $250,000 grant.

Source: 1993/1994 statistics provided by Albuquerque Public Schools and the state Department of Education

Barcelona parent liaison Ana Munoz helps kindergarten student Tayde Flores with translation exercises. Flores’ mother, Rocio Flores, was in the classroom to help.

Barcelona Elementary School bilingual teacher Laura Hildalgo helps a group offirst-graders write letters to be sent to pen pals in El Salvador. Hildalgo teaches students whose primary language is Spanish. She says the time she spends teaching helps build her students’ self-esteem.

Comments are closed.