One person said a referendum on bilingual education is unneeded.

Another said students who speak only English are at a disadvantage to those who are fluent in other languages. And a third said bilingual education is “racist.”

Those were among opinions voiced in a reader forum on bilingual education sponsored this week by the Arizona Daily Star.

About 20 people attended the discussion Wednesday night of a Tucson-based initiative that could ban bilingual education in the state.

Voters could go to the polls in the fall to decide whether Arizona will follow a California referendum that forces students who speak little English to catch up with their classmates in a year through English-only classes.

English for the Children-Arizona would ban bilingual education, the term used to describe programs that offer some classroom instruction in Spanish and other native languages.

Proponents of the English-only initiative are collecting signatures to get the measure on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Minds at this week?s reader forum were unlikely to have been changed, but it ?s clear bilingual education can provoke an emotional response from individuals on either side of the debate.

Rendell Davis, 77, a retired Presbyterian minister, said he opposes the initiative. His opposition, however, has nothing to do with his opinion about bilingual education.

“An initiative like this has no business on the ballot,” said Davis, who spent a decade in Japan where his children became more fluent in that country?s language than English.

“This is the kind of decision that ought to be made by educational administrators, by teachers, by local situations and needs.”

He said voters know too little about the ramifications the initiative could have.

“Most people will not go to the ballot box and know much about this issue.”

Pat Dell, 56, assistant manager for Census 2000 recruiting here, said she isn?t well-versed on the initiative but feels being bilingual in Tucson is preferable to speaking only English.

“We are so short-sighted in our vision that we are putting our Anglo students at a disadvantage because this is a bilingual community.”

She said children in other countries are encouraged to learn several languages to help them communicate in their travels.

“Here, we are so narrow-minded that we are keeping our children ignorant in our arrogance in English-only.” Job Prak, 63, a retiree, said passing the initiative will not prohibit Arizona schoolchildren from learning foreign languages.

He said the bilingual education system is failing, and he favors language immersion for students new to English, as he was as a child in Europe.

“I am 100 percent opposed to bilingual education as it is currently practiced.

“Bilingual education as it is practiced on the ground and in the trenches in the United States … is a racist program,” he said. He said it presumes Spanish-speaking students are not intelligent enough to learn a new language.

Prak left the forum early because of another commitment. When parting, he said the participants were “stacked” in favor of bilingual education.

Hector Ayala, 44, a Cholla teacher and co-chairman of the ballot initiative, said bilingual education has lost its focus ? teaching English to students who enter the school system speaking another language.

“Bilingual education, we feel, was never designed to teach anybody Spanish. It was designed strictly to teach English. “If bilingual education were practiced in a way that was teaching Spanish and English from the very beginning until now, with total success, we wouldn?t exist. Because it isn? t, we do exist.”

Richard Choquette, 44, a librarian at Valencia Middle School, said it is important that parents have a say in their child’s schooling.

“My main concern at this point is that families are involved in this decision, that the concerns of individual families are taken into consideration as their kids are placed into programs.”

He said that too often children are left languishing in bilingual programs that are ineffective because of problems like ill-prepared teachers or inadequate teaching materials.

“Too many times I’ve seen bilingual programs that simply are not working,” Choquette said.

Alejandra Sotomayor, 43, a curriculum specialist at Wakefield Middle School and co-chairwoman of the Arizona Language Education Council, said the entire bilingual education system here should not be eliminated because some programs fail to thrive.

She said that would be tantamount to eliminating math instruction because students perform poorly on state assessment tests.

“This is dangerous, this is pinpointing a certain, specific group of parents and removing their rights,” Sotomayor said. “That?s not something that is part of our democracy.”

Pedro Contreras, 18, a student at Cholla High School where Ayala teaches, said his mother was not provided a choice in his enrollment in a bilingual classroom when his family first moved to Tucson from Mexico.

He said school officials discouraged his mother?s efforts to put him in an English-only classroom.

“I believe I was in a segregated society … by being taught in Spanish instead of English.”

Educators at the forum said the attitude Contreras? mother encountered was wrong. But, they said, parents deserve to have bilingual education as an option for their child?s schooling.

“I?m for bilingual education because it is a methodology and it?s an option I want available to those who choose it,” said Ruth Ruiz, 37, a parent and guest teacher.

“If you take that away, what are you going to take away that I might need?” Ruiz said. “I don’t, as a voter, have the right to tell families and teachers how they?re going to teach or how their children should learn.”

Karla Teran, 35, a teacher at Wakefield Middle School, said educators should be able to use whatever language is necessary to best teach students.

“I think it?s a crime to our society not to be able to reach that child just because the law says I cannot go into that brain and develop what he needs to help all of us to become a better society.”

Adel Ziady, 62, born in Lebanon, said students should be encouraged to learn to speak several languages. Subjects such as mathematics and science, however, should be taught in English, Ziady said.

“It?s a shame that we don?t stress learning more than one language, whether it?s Spanish, English or Native American, whatever it might be. I think the person is as good as however many languages that he speaks. ”

Ellen Thompson, 54, a bilingual teacher at Mission View Elementary School, said children are not short-changed in classroom instruction in English.

“We begin teaching English the very first day of school,” she said.

Thompson said a teacher should be able to use the student?s native language to help ensure the child understands assignments and classroom instruction.

Lauren Adkisson, 11, a student at Davis Bilingual Learning Center, said it is wrong to eliminate classroom instruction in a language that is native to most of the Southwest.

Her principal, Guadalupe Romero, agreed.

“We?ve heard too much, ?Let them stay in Mexico,? or ?Go back to Mexico,? ” Romero said. “We were here before English was here.”

Romero?s school, a popular bilingual elementary north of downtown, was well represented on the panel.

Among them was Mary Adkisson, a teacher at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, who has three children enrolled at Davis, including Lauren.

“I think children should be given the opportunity to learn two languages, whatever the language is, starting at a very young age.”

Patrick Smith, 37, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona and a Davis parent, said he hopes his daughter ? a kindergartner ? remains in a bilingual program through high school.

“Multiple languages is a great gift for children,” he said.

Martina Chavez, 35, a bilingual tutor adviser at three southside schools, said she doesn?t want her children to have to face an English-only classroom.”

“It was very hard for me,” she said. “I?m very fortunate that my parents spoke only Spanish and that helped me stay bilingual.”

“Now I have my three kids and I want them to have the same opportunities I had.”

Her son, Ricky Chavez, a student at Pueblo High School, said being bilingual has helped him communicate with customers at the pizza parlor where he works.

“It?s really good that I learned Spanish and English because I work at Peter Piper Pizza and I need to use Spanish a lot,” he said. “There?s a lot of people who don?t know English.”

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