Beleagured Bilingual Educators Regroup

Teaching: Despite concerns about their futures in the climate of Prop. 187, they meet in Anaheim to exchange ideas on how to be more effective.

Amid growing public scorn for their profession, bilingual educators from across the state gathered in Anaheim for four days last week, set on preserving what for many is not just a profession, but a religion.

Yet a peek at the thick California Assn. for Bilingual Education conference agenda or a brief visit to any of the dozens of generally crowded sessions showed that for bilingual teachers, the central battleground is far from the political din.

While many are worried about their futures, they are consumed by more immediate concerns: teaching English to a teen-ager illiterate in his native tongue or helping a learning-disabled sixth-grader make sense of both Spanish and English.

As she took a break between sessions in the Anaheim Hilton lobby, Claracille Murphy chatted with a teacher from Westminster about what had brought her to the conference from 32nd Street School, the USC performing arts magnet where Murphy teaches third grade.

Like many teachers at the conference, Murphy is still perfecting her Spanish and wanted to get some tips on communicating math and science concepts to children with little English or prior schooling — and she wanted to meet others facing similar challenges.

In a bilingual class, “you end up being counselor, mother, teacher and friend,” she said. “I had no idea it would be this hard. . . . It’s about 12 jobs in one.”

The conference was a regrouping time for the beleaguered, and their sheer numbers — about 6,500 teachers, teachers’ aides, parents and administrators attended the sold-out conference — encouraged them to think positively. The few hints that their elation might be out of alignment with a reality that includes Proposition 187 and a reinvigorated English-only movement came during keynote speeches, in brief asides during presentations and in casual hallway conversations.

A common theme: Bilingual education is more than a right; it is a necessity in a state where public schools enroll about 1.2 million students who speak little or no English, representing 23% of the current student population and a 150% increase over the past 10 years.

“During the sessions, we’re so focused, but in conversations we’re all thinking of dealing with it when we get back to school,” said Sergio Quintor, who trains bilingual aides and teachers in the Antioch Unified School District, where the number of limited-English-speaking students has doubled in the past seven years.

The political controversy brewing around bilingual education “does seem absurd to us, but it also means some people still need to be educated,” Quintor said.

The lack of political activism at the conference was frustrating to Los Angeles CABE chapter President Carmen Sanchez Sadek. During the course of the conference, she handed out hundreds of leaflets encouraging participants to lobby CABE officers to take a more active role.

Sanchez Sadek believes the organization’s best entree is the federal government’s own Goals 2000 — an education reform framework signed into law in April that calls for every adult American to have the math and language “skills necessary to compete in a global economy.”

“It’s crucial to this country’s economic survival,” she said. “That’s my battle cry.”

Conference-goers took Sanchez Sadek’s handouts, folded them and filed them in their canvas “CABE 1995” bags amid reams of other handouts.

Sometimes the public references to the struggle ahead were oblique: Conference co-chair Chuck Acosta opened the event Wednesday by describing the passage of Proposition 187 and the election of a more conservative state Legislature as an “interesting, unusual event.” Author and journalist Ruben Martinez was more direct, saying in his speech that California may be going through the most dramatic upheaval since it was ceded by Mexico in 1848. But he also predicted that current efforts to recoup “a mythical purity” will ultimately fail because California is already bilingual and bicultural.

“Your role is to be at the center of this battle,” he said. “You must be public advocates for your students and their parents because they bear the brunt of this attack.”

Martinez received a standing ovation.

Yet the conference itself seemed a world apart from the fight he described — an unreal world or an ideal world, depending on who is asked. Its official welcome was spoken in four languages; materials were available in Spanish as well as English; the message board had a handwritten note reading, “Estamos Aqui ,” posted next to one saying, “Meet us at 5.”

During sessions, presenters slipped fluidly back and forth between the two languages and audience members followed with ease. When Santa Ana literacy teacher Martha Brambila talked about near-illiterate math students describing unfamiliar objects as “you know, the cositas (little things),” those listening laughed freely.

Just being there together was a kind of political statement, said Frank Avalos, a junior high teacher in Davis.

The hundreds of letters to legislators stacking up at the conference’s legislative advocacy counter indicated that fretting was not far beneath the surface. There, a map of the state marked with names of Assembly and Senate members guided conference participants who wanted to send a form letter to their elected representative.

“Without help to bridge the language barrier, these students cannot possibly succeed,” the letter said in part. “If these children fail, our state faces a deeply troubled future.”

CABE officials view legislators as a key to bilingual education’s survival in post-187 Sacramento, where direct attacks have been launched in several forums, including the state Board of Education and the governor’s office.

The state board is debating the wisdom of teaching foreign students in their native languages before introducing them to English — now the most common practice in bilingual education. Gov. Pete Wilson has twice vetoed legislation that would have required every school district to offer bilingual education.

There also was much excitement among CABE officials and members alike about a new study, presented at the conference, that appears to fortify their latest weapon and the newest wave in bilingual education: two-way immersion, in which foreign language and English speakers are schooled together and all emerge bilingual.

The George Mason University study, delivered to a packed hotel meeting room, showed that such students remained at or above their grade level in their native language and became equally competent in the second language within four to seven years.

As the eagerness to hear about the George Mason study indicates, bilingual teachers know that pinpointing what’s working is one of their greatest future challenges, because state politicians and bureaucrats alike are increasingly demanding proof before providing support.

And, as Sacramento becomes more conservative, what CABE is trying to prove may be changing as well and may increasingly rely on practical arguments: Native-language instruction allows schools to involve non-English-speaking parents in their children’s education; U.S. businesses will need more bilingual workers as the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement grow.

“In today’s climate, that’s the message we have to give: self-interest,” said CABE spokesman Stephen K. Hopcraft. “I keep telling people, ‘If we keep playing the old game, we’re going to lose. We need to reshuffle the deck.’ “

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