A perfect example of what's right with bilingual education

As school officials throughout Tucson search for ways to quickly and successfully teach Spanish-speaking students English, I offer eight little words: Dora Chavez’s fourth-grade class at Pueblo Gardens Elementary.

Throughout the year, I visit scores of classrooms. I have seen some incredible bilingual education classes, including many at Tucson Unified School District’s bilingual elementary, Davis Bilingual.

I have left other bilingual classrooms in more than one district nearly in tears at seeing how little some students are even asked to learn. There are no challenges and teachers whose abilities I questioned.

I recall one time a student asked his bilingual education teacher how to spell tackle.

T-A-C-K-E-L, she wrote on the board for students to copy.

It is for these reasons I felt relieved that I had to retain my reporter’s objectivity as Proposition 203 proponents and foes fought an impassioned war in which both sides were sure their way was best.

When a majority of Arizonans said they wanted a short English- immersion program to replace the current bilingual education plan for English-learners, I felt sorrow for the many, many teachers I know who have dedicated themselves to being successful, competent bilingual teachers.

But at the same time, I breathed a sigh of relief for those students I feared already had spent too many years in bilingual education classes where someone assumed they were too unintelligent or too fragile to be challenged.

And then, right after the election, I visited Dora Chavez’s students.

These fourth-graders were spiritedly debating who should be the next president of the United States.

They were citing sums of Electoral College votes in key states. They vocally but politely disagreed with each other and argued points clearly.

Not once did I hear a statement that was not in a complete sentence. In my 27 years of reporting, I never had walked into an elementary school classroom so completely filled with such confident, well- educated, articulate students as these.

I left the room believing I had just visited a GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) room. I can almost always tell because of the level of excitement and lack of the mundane.

I felt almost ashamed when I showed surprise that this was a bilingual classroom.

Granted, this was not the first year of bilingual education for these children. They had had varying years of it.

But then so did the students from other schools for whom I had felt so sorry in the past.

Pueblo Gardens, which is in one of Tucson’s poorest and most crime- ridden neighborhoods, has all the excuses it could want for not doing well.

It uses none of them.

Instead, as Principal Carmen Kemery says, the entire school community so sincerely cares about its children that the kids know they are loved and they want to do great things in return.

Kemery said Chavez’s room isn’t the only incredible bilingual education class in the school at 2210 E. 33rd St.

And because she is the one who has handpicked many of the teachers in the past few years, I believe her. Wonderful things have been happening at that school recently in terms of student achievement.

I urge local superintendents and members of task forces charged with finding ways to deal with Proposition 203 to visit Chavez’s classroom.

There is magic inside, a magic I hope can be duplicated hundreds of times over.

Actually, it isn’t magic at all. It is a teacher – only a few years out of college – who respects her students enough to guide them to the knowledge they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.

There are no limits as to what Dora Chavez’s students can learn in whatever language they speak, and from whatever background they come.

Go see.

Mary Bustamante’s e-mail address is [email protected]

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