Elena Castro reads in sing-song Spanish to her third-grade class a tale of farm animals and the noises they make in a barn.
“Que dicen los gallos?” (What do the roosters say?), Castro asks her 22 students seated on the blue-gray carpet in Room 10.
“Kee-kee-ri-kee,” the kids crow, using the Mexican sound for cockadoodle-doo.
In Calexico, even the animals speak two languages.
Castro’s class at Dool Elementary is divided between English and Spanish readers, but they are oblivious to the labels – Limited English Proficient or Fluent English Proficient – used to define the language abilities of most California schoolchildren.
Calexico parents, educators and business people don’t understand all the fuss about too much Spanish in classrooms, a debate driving Proposition 227, the June 2 ballot initiative aimed at eliminating most bilingual programs and teaching 1.4 million children English in one year.
Instead, they know that 80 percent of their kids enter school speaking Spanish, that learning English takes time, and that eventually more than 80 percent will go on to four-year colleges.
In this sun-scorched border town, where a simple chain-link fence separates California from Mexico, bilingualism has been the norm for decades. Here, language is the currency of exchange.
“Being bilingual means better jobs and better pay for my children,” said Blanca Rodriguez, a parent of two kids in Calexico schools. “In Calexico, you have to have at least two languages.
“It’s even better if you can be trilingual.”
On weekends, Americans go to Mexicali, Calexico’s sister city across the border, to eat Chinese food, buy papayas and get a haircut at the barberia, or barber shop. Calexico teens hang out at Mexicali dance clubs and catch a showing of “Titanic” in Spanish subtitles at the Cineapolis.
On weekdays, Mexican doctors drop their blue-and-white-uniformed kids off at the border so they can learn English in American private schools. Mexicans – about 60,000 daily – cross over to buy trinkets or toilet paper at Calexico five-and-dime stores and Wal-Mart.
“All of us live our lives on both sides of the border,” said Reynaldo Ayala, a Calexico Unified school board member. “It would be ridiculous to have our children deny their culture to fit some blue-eyed, blond-hair image of America.
“Our kids find their own niche and build their self-identity in school.”
Calexico’s bilingual programs have been cited by some educators as a national model because they demand rigorous courses for its Limited English Proficient, or LEP, students, regardless of what language they take them in. National Public Radio and newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have stopped by to spotlight Calexico’s successes.
But progress, even in what some tout as a model program, is slow: The number of children reclassified as fluent each year is about 4.7 percent, lower than the state’s (6.7 percent) and Orange County’s average (5.9 percent). SAT scores lag behind the state average.
Instead, folks in this small farming town say, the real lesson of Calexico is that they have found a school program that suits their unique community.
When the state’s bilingual education began 30 years ago, Calexico’s kids were grouped according to their English skills, as they are now in some schools in Santa Ana and Anaheim. But kids in the English-only classes soon made fun of those in the other groups, calling them “chicalones,” a derogatory slang word for Mexicali peasant.
So in the mid-’80s, Calexico began mixing kids regardless of skill level. Whereas in Santa Ana kids are separated into English or transitional bilingual classes and lessons are in English or Spanish, Calexico children are grouped in small teams to encourage them to teach each other.
Teachers also work in teams so that every student has two or three teachers who monitor an individual’s progress. While most kids make the transition to English in four years – compared to three in Santa Ana – lessons proceed in whatever language a child feels comfortable with. No one is reprimanded for answering in Spanish, and as a result children switch between languages without a second thought.
Underlying it all, teachers say, is the notion that self-esteem is built by viewing Spanish not as a disability to be remedied by schools, but a foundation for learning.
“We found that kids were not confusing Spanish with English,” said Castro. “They were confident and they were learning.”
Critics of bilingual education say that because kids are surrounded by Spanish – on the playground, in the markets and at home – it’s critical to give English during school hours. Doing so allows kids to learn the language faster, they say.
Others criticize the mingling of English and Spanish – “Spanglish” – where children switch between English and Spanish midsentence or create hybrid words like “parkar” (border slang for “to park” a car) or “watchalo” (border slang for “Watch it!”). The problem, some educators complain, is that kids end up without a good grasp of either language.
“Kids code-switch because it’s fun. They can talk about people without them knowing,” said high school teacher Gilberto Mendez.
But Calexico’s bilingual approach has found boosters in the community because it has produced results. Eight in 10 of Calexico’s 1,400 high school students take college-preparatory courses. The same percentage enroll in college, though 65 percent start at Imperial Valley College, the local community college. About 15 percent attend the University of California and California State University systems straight out of high school, about the same percentage Orange County sends.
The high school dropout rate of 2.8 percent is lower than the state’s 3.9 percent – and half the rate for Hispanics statewide.
“We think our bilingual programs have kept our kids in school,” said Emily Palacio, Calexico’s assistant superintendent.
But if Calexico’s approach to bilingual education is seen by some as a model, it is a difficult model to reproduce.
For starters, Calexico has bilingual teachers, something lacking in two-thirds of California’s bilingual classes. In Calexico, 227 teachers have bilingual credentials for the district’s 7,200 students – a ratio of one teacher per 32 students.
In Santa Ana, in a county where only 13 percent of the children eligible for bilingual education receive it, only 281 teachers are fully credentialed to teach bilingual classes to the 38,000 kids who need extra help – a ratio of one teacher per 135 students.
“Calexico’s teachers all speak Spanish,” said Howard Bryan, bilingual director for Santa Ana Unified. “We rely a lot on bilingual aides – and that can slow down teaching.”
Calexico schools also do not suffer from the overcrowding that plagues schools in Anaheim and Santa Ana. Class size in Calexico is about 22-1 through third-grade, and playground space is as wide as the onion fields that surround Calexico. In Santa Ana, class size averages about 32-1, and many campsuses are stacked with portables – an average of 30 at high schools.
Unlike at schools in Westminster and Garden Grove, teachers in Calexico don’t have to deal with 20 different languages in a single classroom. Hispanics make up 98 percent of the student population, and 80 percent are Spanish speakers. The sprinkling of Chinese students in Calexico all come from Spanish-speaking homes.
Finally, the tight-knit community allows teachers, principals and even the superintendent to put a name and family history to almost every face in the classrooms. It’s an intimacy urban schools can’t match.
“They treat us like we’re all family,” Calexico High sophomore Liliana Corona said of her teachers and school administrators. “Most of us have lived here all our lives.”