Banning Spanish only closes doors

Let us first agree that learning English is a very good and necessary thing.

It does not follow, however, that knowing and speaking Spanish is a bad thing.

Yet this is the message that P.T. Coe Elementary School has sent to its students, their parents and the greater community.

According to a recent story, Principal Lesa Thomas asked the school’s teachers to not speak Spanish to students on the playground, in the cafeteria and in hallways. This in a district that is 95 percent Latino.

Let’s be clear. She told this to teachers, but the students were the target. This is a tool to discourage students from using Spanish outside the classroom.

Proposition 203, which in 2000 banned bilingual education in Arizona, had already made Spanish lingua non-grata in the classroom. Teachers can use it only minimally in that setting.

Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to Thomas and Isaac Elementary School District Superintendent Paul Hanley. Let’s assume that their actions stem simply from educators’ desire to have students learn English.

The problem: We’ve already limited the tools available to teach English to immigrant children – eliminating bilingual ed in favor of structured English immersion. Similarly, sending the message that Spanish is bad will have the effect of retarding English instruction.

Self-loathing is not fertile ground to plant those English seeds. There is sometimes a thin line between encouragement and discouragement. This school has crossed that line.

This edict, no matter how tenderly stated – or restated as simply an attempt to get the teachers to “use good English whenever possible” – tells the students that being themselves is just no good.

This message is in keeping with a long-held belief hereabouts that Spanish is a disease whose only cure is English.

Hanley and Thomas also told the newspaper that the school is simply following the spirit of the initiative that outlawed bilingual education.

Unfortunately, the initiative was decidedly mean-spirited, limiting teachers’ ability to make themselves understood by children struggling to learn English. It removed from our educational arsenal a worthy weapon to teach English – the goal of bilingual education.

Instead of fixing the flaws in bilingual education programs, Arizonans elected to send a message about the primacy of English and the inferiority of the language these children will speak on the playground, in the cafeteria, in the hallways and at home with their parents, siblings and other relatives.

Please, let’s not fool ourselves. The students will continue to speak Spanish in these settings no matter what handcuffs the school places on its teachers.

What everyone needs to remember here is that speaking Spanish doesn’t mean you can’t learn English. These are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Kids will learn English if schools start doing a better job of teaching it. They’re doing a miserable job.

It’s more complicated than putting a reading book in front of a kid and then listening and correcting as he or she plods torturously through it aloud in a classroom. This classroom, by the way, is likely so overcrowded that, even with teaching assistants, scant individual attention occurs.

But essentially telling this kid that his or her native language is unacceptable only adds to the torture. Instead of honing Spanish skills while developing English ones, we treat these kids as linguistic lepers.

OK, the school hasn’t told the kids they can’t speak Spanish outside the classroom. It told the teachers.

No matter. The message is the same. Spanish is so unacceptable we won’t even let adults use it for as simple a purpose as effective communication on the road to English mastery.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jaime Molera was quoted as supporting the school’s ban and denying that this has anything to do with election opponent Tom Horne’s charge that he is soft on teaching English to immigrant children.

Horne’s charge is patently false, made only in the spirit of political opportunism.

But I’d feel much better if Molera had simply told the district the truth. Such a ban is as shortsighted as the initiative that banned bilingual education in the first place and unworkable to boot.

Reach Pimentel at or (602) 444-8210. His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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