SAN FRANCISCO — Jorge Duran has jumped out of the melting pot and into the fire of one of California’s biggest controversies: bilingual education.
In a personal act of rebellion, the Mexican immigrant and garbage truck driver marched into his children’s Bay-area school last year and demanded more English classes.
“They’re supposed to learn English because they were born here and they’re living here and they’re not going to get the jobs if they don’t understand English,” he said.
“Some kids coming from Mexico are the same age as my daughters and they are catching English faster than my daughters who were born here.’
The family speaks Spanish at home.
Duran, whose three young children are U.S. citizens, is frustrated with bilingual education and wants to do something about it. So do 70 percent of California voters, who, according to recent polls, support a June 2 ballot initiative to abolish almost all bilingual classes.
California — where minorities will become the majority of the population in 2002 — is the first state to vote on whether bilingual education should be replaced with English-only classes, unless a parent obtains a waiver.
The California proposal, which has stirred an emotional and racially divisive debate, may have implications for Texas, where 514,000 students — 13 percent of the children in public schools — are not proficient in English. In California,
about 25 percent of students — 1.3 million — are not fluent in English.
Texas officials are watching Proposition 227, called the “English for the Children” initiative, but no strong movement to ban bilingual educationhas surfaced here.
In California, the attack on bilingual education has galvanized advocacy groups and some educators, many of whom have embraced bilingual schooling since the concept was advanced more than 30 years ago. They include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Education Association.
They say children should be allowed to make the transition to English over several years while learning other subjects in their native tongue. Bilingual education preserves children’s heritage and culture, they say, while saving them from falling behind academically while they learn English.
Hispanic advocacy groups and some educators view the California proposal as immigrant-bashing in a state that hasn’t been kind to minorities. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a plan to end affirmative action. And, in 1994, voters passed Proposition 187, a measure aimed at ending social services for illegal immigrants.
Polls show that support for the anti-bilingual proposition is high among all racial and ethnic groups, although non-Hispanic whites support the proposal in greater numbers than minorities. The latest statewide poll, taken March 20, found Prop 227 favored by 61 percent of Hispanics, 75 percent of Asians,
and 63 percent of African Americans. Non-Hispanic whites supported the ballot measure by 71 percent.
Opponents of bilingual programs say the public education system is failing immigrant children by holding them back from intensive lessons in English,
the language of upwardly mobile America. They blame a faulty bilingual education system exacerbated by a shortage of teachers for high dropout rates among Hispanic students and for relegating minority youth to low-paying, dead-end jobs.
The opponents are led by Silicon Valley software millionaire Ron Unz, a failed Republican candidate for California governor. Unz says he embraces bilingualism but not faulty bilingual programs. He calls English “the universal language of advancement and opportunity.”
Unz has recruited to his cause Jaime Escalante, the Hispanic immigrant teacher who won fame for his classroom success in inner-city Los Angeles with the movie “Stand and Deliver.” Escalante is a mathematics teacher who worked to eliminate bilingual classes.
The bilingual initiative has proven so controversial that none of the major candidates for governor, of either party, has endorsed it despite its widespread popularity among voters. Instead, they are saying what many education experts believe: that the bilingual education system has some problems but that the one-size-fits-all approach of Proposition 227 may be too simplistic for a complex issue that involves thousands of children at different learning levels.
Texans in the fray
In the San Francisco area, two native Texans — bilingual expert Rosa Apodaca and Democratic activist Fernando Vega — are at the forefront of the controversy.
They are on opposite sides of the fight.
“It’s about time we put a stop to this,” Vega said. “They call it bilingual, but all they’re learning is Spanish. It has failed tremendously.
We’re losing a lot of kids.”
Vega, 73, a retired Pan Am airplane mechanic, is the most prominent Hispanic opposed to bilingual education in the Bay area. Vega grew up in Brownsville but settled in Redwood City, a manufacturing and high-tech city of 75,000 about 30 miles south of San Francisco.
Vega says he helped start the first bilingual classes in Redwood City almost 30 years ago when he was a member of the school board. He had moved on to the City Council and Democratic party politics before he thought about bilingual education again. He raised six children who spoke English, and began working against bilingual classes in 1988 when his American-born, English-speaking grandson was placed in a Spanish-language class.
“They’re not learning in English or Spanish,” he said. “I think it is very important to know five languages, but one of the languages better be English if they’re going to succeed here.”
Vega’s parents were Mexican immigrants, and he learned Spanish at home.
At school in Brownsville, he learned English the only way he could — by attending first grade taught in English.
When Vega heard about the anti-bilingual measure, he jumped at the chance to help get out the vote.
He set up a card table last year to collect signatures to get Proposition 227 on the ballot. Now, he proudly displays a large green sign on his house that says “English for the Children.”
“I think it’s a win-win situation if we get rid of bilingual education,
” he said.
Vega’s sign draws attention and brings strangers to his door. He embraces them all and recruits them to his cause. His house near California 101 has become a sort of salon for Hispanics opposed to bilingual education.
Duran, the garbage collector, relies on Vega for moral support. Duran kept after his daughters’ school last year until school officials allowed him to transfer them to a different school that taught more English. Vega tells Duran he has done the right thing for his American- born children, Emma,
9; Leticia, 7; and Jorge Jr., 5.
Duran said he used to be afraid to take his children to Mexico to visit relatives every summer because he thought they would be mistaken for illegal immigrants and detained.
Now, the children’s school is teaching them English at a faster rate than their previous school, he said. Their self-esteem has improved and their circle of friends has expanded to include Anglos.
He and his wife continue to speak Spanish at home but are relieved their children are growing up knowing two languages.
“I’m trying to give the best to them,” Duran said. “Maybe they can be a teacher or something. I hope they can be something good in this world, at least something better than me.”
El Paso memories
Apodaca has similar dreams for children, and she believes saving bilingual education is the way to make them reality.
Apodaca, 53, who was born in El Paso and later worked there as a bilingual teacher and University of Texas professor, is assistant superintendent in charge of bilingual programs for the San Francisco school district. She draws on personal experience in her fight to retain bilingual programs.
Her first teaching job was in El Paso, where she was assigned to teach Hispanic first-graders who had been held back because of language difficulties. She greeted her new pupils each day with “buenos dias.’ ‘
To her dismay, the children ran away. She was hurt and puzzled. Finally,
a colleague told her she would be fired if she continued speaking Spanish to the children.
“The kids didn’t want to speak to you in Spanish because if they did they got to go to detention, or they got swats,” Apodaca said.
She can’t shake that image of Spanish-speaking children living in fear of punishment if they spoke their native language. Children who speak a language other than English should be encouraged to keep that language intact while learning English, she said.
“Why should one set of students have to subtract a language?”
she said. “Kids can add a language.”
By teaching students math, science and other subjects in their native tongue while they learn English, schools avoid holding children back or making them feel inadequate, she said.
In the highly diverse San Francisco schools, children arrive speaking 64 languages. Thirty percent of the 65,500 students are not proficient in English.
Most of the non-English speakers use Cantonese (42 percent) or Spanish (36 percent), and schools have an array of bilingual programs. The average bilingual student needs 41/2 years to become fluent in English — “a pretty decent average,” Apodaca said.
Apodaca, who is the former director of bilingual education for the Dallas school system, struggles to maintain her composure when she envisions what will happen to non-English speaking students if the anti-bilingual measure passes.
This is what she sees through the tears starting to form: “Kids struggling and looking stupid when they’re not. And people thinking they’re stupid when they’re not.”
She and other teachers also worry they may be sued if they speak Spanish or any other non-English language in a classroom if bilingual education is banned, even if a child is in desperation and needs a gentle word of encouragement in a familiar language. The California proposition would give parents legal standing to sue if their children are not taught in English.
“Language carries culture,” Apodaca said. “If you’re saying you can’t use the language, what are you saying about my culture? It signals to the child, ‘I’m less than the others.’ We’ve worked very hard to bring children to a different place.”