Crowd’s Protests Silence Leader Of National Group Suing APS

A speech by a nationally known bilingual education critic at the University of New Mexico prompted a fierce protest Thursday, with one person being taken away in handcuffs.

Linda Chavez, the head of a nonprofit organization paying for a lawsuit that seeks to eliminate Albuquerque Public Schools’ bilingual education programs, was interrupted so often, she eventually cut short her remarks.

Many protesters bore signs declaring Chavez a “vendida,” or sellout, for seeking to eliminate programs they say help preserve New Mexico’s Hispanic culture.

“You are one of those professional Uncle Toms who lives off the conservative agenda,” shouted Charles Truxillo during her speech.

At one point, campus police were called in to control crowds. One woman was taken away in handcuffs when she refused to put down a sign.

She later returned to the event and said the police had charged her with disturbing the peace. Campus police would not comment.

Chavez ultimately had to cut her comments short by 45 minutes.

Chavez’s nonprofit Washington, D.C., organization, the Center for Equal Opportunity, filed a lawsuit in April demanding that APS “cease from offering native language academic instruction.”

In an interview Thursday, however, she said she would entertain settlement offers from the district.

She also said she does not oppose all bilingual programs, provided that the primary goal is to teach English to non-English speaking children rapidly.

“I would not object to a bilingual program in which children moved very quickly into English,” she said in an interview.

More than 24,000 APS students receive the native language instruction the lawsuit seeks to abolish. In those courses, students who speak no or little English are taught in their home language.

Some stay in bilingual programs only until they learn English. Others continue for years with the goal of becoming literate in two languages.

Supporters of the approach say it ensures that students do not fall behind in subjects like math and science while they are learning English.

Several of the protesters who attended Chavez’s speech said the programs also make it possible for students to excel in two languages.

“I want my children to compete in an increasingly global society,” said Jennifer Romero de Martinez. “There is no way they can do that if they speak only English.”

But Chavez said few bilingual programs nationwide place enough focus on teaching students English.

Worse yet, she said, APS and other districts are not tracking the effectiveness of the programs and do not compile information that would inform parents on whether native language instruction is working for their child. APS recently began to collect such data.

Chavez said because most bilingual programs are aimed at Spanish-speaking students, Hispanics suffer most.

“It has been my theory that Hispanic children have been taught differently from all other minority groups,” she said.

Chavez supports English immersion programs, which seek to quickly teach students the language while integrating them in regular courses.

But she said she also recognizes that some bilingual programs are effective — particularly if they are administered by educators whose chief concern is teaching students English.

“Almost anything works if you get a committed principal and a committed teacher,” she said in the interview.

Chavez said in her speech, however, that bilingual instruction is best given outside the schools.

She invited bilingual supporters to open a community center to teach Spanish. Members of the audience, however, said they do not have the resources to do that.

Though the lawsuit demands that all native language instruction be eliminated in the local district, Chavez said her ultimate goal is to provide parents with more options.

Those who choose bilingual programs should have them, she said, but no parent should have a child forced into such programs.

APS officials say their bilingual programs — most of which are funded by the state — are optional.

But Chavez said educators often fail to explain the methods of English instruction. The lawsuit alleges that some students were placed in bilingual programs without parental consent.

Chavez said she would accept a settlement offer from the district only if it increased access to English-only programs. Otherwise, she said, she would press ahead with the case.

Many who attended the speech, however, question Chavez’s motives and doubt she will stop short of trying to abolish all bilingual programs at APS.

“Everything in the lawsuit states that they intend to eliminate bilingual education,” said Valerie Pacini.

Pacini heads the Albuquerque Border Cities Project, one of six groups seeking to intervene in the bilingual lawsuit.

Pacini and others agree there are problems with APS bilingual programs, but Pacini said they are seeking to “mend them, not end them.”

She said Chavez is “working from secondhand knowledge” of APS, and is not familiar with how bilingual programs function in New Mexico.

The lawsuit against APS — which is scheduled to go to trial in January — has the potential of affecting school districts across the state, since it also seeks to have the New Mexico Bilingual Multicultural Education Act declared unconstitutional. That act establishes the state’s commitment to bilingual programs.

Chavez said the lawsuit will be a success if it prompts APS and other districts to more closely track the effectiveness of their bilingual programs.

“I think at the very least you will see major reforms as a result of this lawsuit,” she said.

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