BERKELEY — Like many new immigrants, Vanessa Landoni didn’t speak any English when she first arrived as a child in the United States from Guatemala.

Now 17 and a senior at Berkeley High, Landoni is fighting Proposition 227, a measure on the November ballot that would basically eliminate bilingual education in the state of California.

Landoni is the student director on the Berkeley School Board. But she is sure she would never be where she is today if not for the help she received in classes such as English as a Second Language and other bilingual programs offered at Berkeley schools.

The so-called Unz initiative — named for Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz who has championed the issue — eliminates bilingual education programs in favor of a language “immersion” program. It prohibits teachers from speaking any language other than English in the classroom.

It lumps together limited-English speakers of different ages and grades for one year. The group would be taught together, in English only, for up to one year before the students are mainstreamed into regular classes.

City already opposed

On Feb. 4, the Berkeley School Board passed a resolution opposing the proposition because it would “limit local control by imposing a single unproven English language development program on all schools in the state.

The school board, which oversees a district where white students are in the minority and students speak more than 60 languages, said the ballot measure would “deprive children of an equal right to instruction, restrict foreign language instruction and subject (teachers) to the threat of personal liability for failing to speak English only in the classroom.”

Berkeley High students who think it’s unfair that students have to master English in one year are not sitting idle while some politicians wage an all-out attack against bilingual education.

They recently conducted a teach-in, visiting classes to explain the effect Proposition 227 would have on bilingual education in California if approved by voters in June.

Landoni said the initiative’s backers are misleading the Latino community into believing the proposition is good for their children; that it will help them learn English faster, and help their children get into college.

Prominent support for Prop. 227

She said it doesn’t take much convincing when parents hear that Jaime Escalante, the math teacher Edward James Olmos made famous in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” backs the ballot measure.

At the Gray Panthers meeting in February, one of the speakers said a poll showed that the Latino community favored the initiative, Landoni said. “He said (pollsters) asked Latinos if they wanted their kids to learn English, and they said, ‘yeah.’ Well, of course, I would, too.”

About 50 Berkeley High students staged a performance at lunch last week to illustrate what they believe the initiative would mean for education in California.

They were rounded up by a student dressed up as Unz, handcuffed with tape, and made to remove any cultural garments, revealing white clothing underneath. Tape was placed over their mouths so they couldn’t speak in their native language, and they were forced to drink milk, and read textbooks labeled “white history only!”

“We couldn’t say anything,” Landoni said. “We were tied together and had to sit there. That’s basically what it will be like if the initiative passes; it’s almost what it’s like already. Basically this is where our future is leading to: enslavement.

“We’ll get to vote when we’re 18, but we’ll be voting on initiatives like this, and it’s only going to get worse.”

On April 26, the school district, Columbus School PTA and Berkeley PTA Council will sponsor a community forum to discuss the Unz initiative and the impact it could have on bilingual programs in Berkeley schools.

Speakers will include school board director Joaquin Rivera, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney Joe Jaramillo, and Alison Jones, Columbus School’s bilingual program coordinator.

The forum will be in the Columbus multipurpose room from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., 920 Allston Way at Eighth Street. Child care and Spanish language translation will be provided. For information, contact Roselyn Mena at 644-8812.

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