Although Arizona voters last year overwhelmingly approved eliminating
bilingual education programs in public schools, thousands of Tucson students
will still be in the programs when classes resume next month.
So far, parents of nearly 3,000 children in the Sunnyside and Tucson unified
school districts have won approval for a waiver in Proposition 203 that
allows some children to remain in bilingual programs. Educators expect the
number to grow because parents can request the waivers until school starts
Passed by a 2-to-1 margin in November, Proposition 203 replaced the state
system for educating non-English-speaking students with an English immersion
Because of the waivers, about one-third of the students in the Sunnyside
district who are not proficient in English won’t go into the mandated
Structured English Immersion classes.
Foes of bilingual education accuse school administrators and teachers of
pressuring parents to seek waivers.
“What it tells me is that we were all exactly right when we said the
bilingual education establishment won’t go away very easily,” said Hector
Ayala, a Cholla High School English teacher and a leader of the push for
“I suspect that 95 percent of the people signing waivers are not coming
forward of their own accord. I believe they are being recruited.”
For students who have difficulty with English and don’t get waivers will be
enrolled in the immersion classes, where all instruction and materials are
to be in English.
“But when there is a fire drill and kids don’t understand, teachers are not
going to say, ‘You’re on your own,’ ” said Jeanne Favela, head of
Sunnyside’s Two-Language Acquisition department.
She said each grade level at each of its 20 schools will have at least one
Last year, about 3,200 of the 14,600 students in the Sunnyside district were
in bilingual education. About 1,200 students will remain in the program this
fall, thanks to waivers.
About 12,000 of the 63,895 students in TUSD – nearly 1 in 5 – were enrolled
in bilingual classes last year. So far, waivers have been granted for about
In both districts, it wasn’t until near the end of school in May that
teachers and administrators began to understand how many children would get
“Once the teachers knew what they were teaching, either SEI or Two-Language
Acquisition, then they were more at ease,” said Norma Ramirez, a master
teacher who is a reading and resource teacher at Liberty Elementary, 5495 S.
Still anticipating confusion as the new school year nears, Sunnyside has
hired English proficiency testers to go into its schools 10 days before
school starts to deal with some of the newcomers, Favela said.
“We have planned as much as we can, but still there may be a little
reconfiguring of classes at the start of school,” she said. “We want to be
as ready as possible. We’re not going to let kids hang from the rafters
while we decide where to put them.”
Mary Mendoza, another local advocate for Proposition 203, accused school
officials of using “intimidation and scare tactics” to get parents to seek
“If they repeatedly refuse to implement this law, there will be lawsuits,
believe me,” she said.
English-speaking students who were in bilingual classes last school year
don’t need a waiver, but there is a form at Sunnyside for them to ask for
it, on a space-available basis.
Those students could help fill bilingual classes created for students who
got waivers but who don’t make up a large enough group to justify a whole
At Sunnyside schools where there aren’t enough students for a bilingual
education class, students with a waiver would be allowed to transfer to a
school that has them, Favela said. She is sending letters to that effect to
parents of students in schools where not enough students wanted it.
Sunnyside and TUSD officials say they don’t want students to be scared of or
feel stupid in English-only classes.
“These kids have so much knowledge from home. We can’t treat them as if
they’re broken,” Favela said. “We have to provide a learning environment
that is enriching and supportive of what children know and who they are
instead of one that is punitive.”
The goal is to provide a place where students don’t feel intimidated, Favela
“In bilingual education we tell them they already know Spanish and give them
a place to take risks to learn English.”
Favela said about 1,000 of the district’s non-English-proficient students
were born in other countries and have been in the United States less than
three years. Many are of high school age.
“Given all the variable, obviously there are going to be fewer kids in
bilingual classes than before. We expect that,” she said. “Over time there
will be ebbs and flows. But there are more and more parents getting
interested in having their children learn more than one language.”
Becky Monta?o, TUSD’s associate superintendent, said because the criteria to
receive a waiver are so specific, parents who know their children wouldn’t
qualify simply haven’t applied in that district. Most of the ones who think
their children will qualify have received waivers approved by principals.
Parental waivers are allowed under Proposition 203 for children 10 or older,
for children who score 60 or higher on the Language Assessment Scale for
English comprehension, and for children with documented special individual
Although the relatively low number of requests in TUSD is surprising, she
expects a rash of requests in August just before school starts.
“I think after August, when we go back and add up all the numbers, that’s
when we’ll really see the impacts,” she said.
That could cause problems requiring 11th-hour schedule adjustments. TUSD
officials set high school teacher class schedules in February and elementary
and middle school teacher schedules in April.
One school largely unaffected by 203 is Davis Bilingual Magnet Elementary
School, because it is covered by TUSD’s federal desegregation order.
Principal Guadalupe Romero said English is the first language of most of the
school’s about 236 K-5 students, anyway.
But, it will have one “multi-age” sheltered English immersion class, mostly
made up of K-3 students.
Citizen Staff Writer Eric Weslander contributed to this report.