Bilingual classes' success debated

Classes effective for only 2.8% of students

Fewer than 3 percent of students in Arizona’s bilingual education classes are gaining the skills necessary to join students in mainstream classes, according to a report the Arizona Department of Education will release later this month.

The rate is lower than that in California, where voters’ disenchantment led Tuesday to the overwhelming approval of an initiative that virtually eliminates bilingual education in that state. Preparing Limited English Proficient students to enter mainstream classes is the stated goal of bilingual education in both states. Arizona’s apparent failure to do so already has some of the state’s Hispanics applauding the California vote — and hoping the movement spreads east.

“Good for them. That should happen here,” said Norma Alvarez, a leader of the Glendale Hispanic Forum, a group of parents opposed to bilingual education. Others, however, viewed the California vote with disappointment. “This is a sad day for immigrant students in California,” said Eufemia Amasbisca, president of the Arizona Association of Bilingual Educators. “But, hopefully, not in Arizona.” The Department of Education’s study states that 93,528 of Arizona’s estimated 750,000 public school students are classified as Limited English Proficient. More than half of those students are being taught English as a second language, in which English acquisition is the professed objective.

However, only 2.8 percent of the LEP students learn enough English to join mainstream classes, the report states. That compares to just under 7 percent in California. The lag in English acquisition for LEP students became a centerpiece of the argument advanced by proponents of the California initiative.

Proposition 227, approved by 61 percent of voters Tuesday, requires that all public school students be placed in “English-only” classrooms after one year of “sheltered immersion.” In California, the debate over bilingual education was one of the most divisive ever confronted by Hispanics. While some maintain that native-language instruction often tempers what can be a traumatic separation from their culture, others fear that bilingual education segregates students and retards their acquisition of English.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Equal Opportunity, Arizona scores well in the flexibility and accountability of its bilingual programs. In fact, in a 1997 “report card,” the center ranked Arizona as having the best bilingual education programs among the 10 states with the highest number of LEP students. But the state apparently fares more poorly when preparing students to join other classmates.

Alvarez said the Glendale Hispanic Forum, which represents about 50 parents, has spent two decades wrestling with administrators of the Glendale Elementary School District over its bilingual education policy.

“Here in Glendale, the goal is to teach students Spanish first, before teaching them English,” Alvarez said. Rosella Ortega, bilingual coordinator for the Glendale Elementary School District, could not be reached for comment. Those on the other side of this issue are just as committed to preserving bilingual education.

“We don’t dispute the fact that English is important or that Hispanic parents want their students to learn English,” Amasbisca said. “You just can’t teach them English in one year. That part of the initiative will fail.” Others agree with that assessment. “If it were possible for kids to learn English in nine months, they’d be doing so already,” said Josue Gonzalez, director of the Center for Bilingual Education and Research at ASU. “It’s impossible.” Not so, say opponents of bilingual education.

“It is possible. It happens every day, with Koreans, with Russian Jews. It happens even without them getting extra help,” said Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Amasbisca believes that an initiative like the one in California will appear on the Arizona ballot at some point. And when it does, she said, she and her colleagues will be more prepared to fight it. Part of the problem in California, she said, was that bilingual educators did not successfully educate Hispanics as to the benefits of native-language instruction.


Ruben Navarrette, Jr. can be reached at [email protected] via e-mail or at (602) 444-4977.

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