Sarai Ornelas learned English in a Colorado public school.
Bilingual teacher Brian Kenyon reads “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” to his third- and fourth-grade students at Escuela de Guadalupe in north Denver.
Oscar Gonzalez came close.
Sarai, 12, plans to become a lawyer, then a judge, then president.
Gonzalez, 24, is studying for his GED but has trouble answering, in English, a question like, “What do you do for a living?” He says something about wood and machines.
Both are products of bilingual education, a catchall term for tactics that incorporate a student’s native language in the process of turning him or her into an educated citizen functional in English.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In November, Colorado voters likely will be asked to determine whether bilingual education is so ineffective that it should virtually be banned.
English learners would, instead, get a one-year immersion course, then go into regular classes. Educators who don’t obey the law would be barred from teaching in public schools or “holding any position of authority anywhere within the Colorado government” for five years.
Proponents of the ballot measure (see complete text), including some educators, say bilingual education has had more than enough chances to prove itself and has failed. Some say it’s a flawed educational theory, while others say it’s a good theory doomed by inadequate resources – that it could work but never will.
Opponents of the initiative are aghast that English for the Children, the group behind the proposal, would even consider amending the state constitution to tell local schools what classroom techniques they may or may not use. They say non-English speakers learn English best when teachers can support them in their native language. In Colorado, that mainly means Spanish.
But English for the Children has gotten similar measures passed in California and Arizona, by wide margins, and now is targeting Massachusetts as well as Colorado. Founder Ron Unz, a California software entrepreneur, says he chose Colorado because private polling and press accounts of problems in Denver Public Schools’ bilingual program convinced him that he could win here.
“No state legislature anywhere in America has ever been able to pass a significant change to bilingual education,” Unz says. “I think there’s tremendous interest. But politicians often are very nervous about getting involved in something that is perceived as being controversial but does not have an organized interest group on the side of change.”
Unz aims to create such an opposition force along with Rita Montero, the former Denver school board member who is his main political partner in Colorado. They say bilingual education condemns immigrants to being “illiterate in two languages.”
Years in DPS wasted?
They have ex-students like Oscar Gonzalez in mind. Gonzalez is no loser; he owns his home, and he’s a supervisor at work. Listening to him talk ungrammatically about his life, though, it’s hard not to conclude that DPS failed him.
While Gonzalez liked his 71/2 years in the Denver schools, he admits he learned “not much” English. His best memory of DPS is his first month, at age 8, when he was in a regular, all-English school.
“I didn’t speak no English at that time, but I feel I can learn,” he recalls.
Then he was transferred to a school where he was taught in Spanish.
“Because I need to be in a bilingual school, they told me.”
His parents had no input into the decision, Gonzalez says. He went on to have some Spanish and some English classes in middle and high school, then dropped out in his junior year when his family moved back to Mexico.
Gonzalez thinks Unz’s immersion idea would have worked better for him: “For me, I think I was OK if I was only English classes.”
Gonzalez’s account agrees with Pam Martinez’s recollections of that era. Martinez is co-founder of Denver education activist group Padres Unidos, which strongly favors bilingual education. In 1993, Padres joined a civil-rights complaint alleging bilingual education in DPS was so bad, it amounted to discrimination. Complaints included teachers lacking Spanish-language materials and not knowing any Spanish.
In 1999, DPS and the plaintiffs settled on a new approach: move Spanish speakers into mainstream English classes in three years. The program was christened English Language Acquisition.
“We took a loss in that ruling because we were calling for deepening and fully implementing excellent bilingual education,” Martinez says. Ernest R. House, the University of Colorado education professor monitoring the program for federal Judge Richard Matsch, has documented problems with ELA, including students being assigned to Spanish classes merely because they have Spanish surnames.
Yet Martinez is afraid of losing even the present program if English for the Children wins.
“Now we’re entering another phase where ELA’s going to look good in comparison with Ron Unz and Rita Montero’s gig,” she says. “A year from now we’re going to be fighting to hold onto ELA. Ludicrous.”
Unz and Montero say ELA is as bad as what preceded it because the three-year target is totally random. “They decided to average five to seven years, which is what the theory says, with one year, which is what the reality is,” Unz says.
Oddly, however, ELA could turn out to be the only bilingual program in Colorado not affected by English for the Children. That’s because the federal court order that governs it could trump a state constitutional provision. Judge Matsch is due to decide after this school year whether to return the program to local control or maintain the court’s supervision.
Montero, once a pro-bilingual activist, turned against the concept after DPS tried to keep her son in a bilingual program he wasn’t suited for merely because, she says, they needed enough bodies to justify the teacher’s salary.
She endorsed Unz’s statewide campaign without researching how English learners are taught outside Denver.
“I can’t tell you what’s happening anywhere else in the state,” Montero says. “I can’t tell you what their programs are like. I can’t tell you if the experiences that we’ve had, of unqualified teachers in the classroom, are the same in the outlying areas as they are in Denver.”
She says she assumes bilingual education is a disaster everywhere: “Denver has had probably the longest history with bilingual education, and as the largest bilingual program in the state of Colorado, if they’ve been at it for all of these years, and they can’t get it straight, imagine what the smaller districts are struggling with.”
Studies back both sides
Both sides in this battle have piles of studies and statistics – often the same ones – that they say prove their case. In one recent example, Unz took credit for gains in standardized-test scores in California, but academic researchers at Arizona State University said his analysis, and the tests themselves, were flawed.
To assess the competing claims, The Denver Post asked English for the Children and English Plus, a group that wants school districts to keep using bilingual education if they choose, for examples of programs that illustrate their contentions.
English for the Children cited only Denver. English Plus said success stories can be found in several districts that use varying approaches to bilingual education.
For instance, they like the dual-language concept used at Harris Elementary in Fort Collins. That’s the school where Sarai Ornelas learned English.
In the early 1990s, teachers throughout the Poudre school district became frustrated that they didn’t know how to teach their growing number of students from Mexico. Rather than try to train every teacher in bilingual methods, Poudre turned Harris into a dual-language magnet school in 1993. Equal numbers of Spanish-speaking and English-speaking children learn together, alternating languages weekly.
For the children, it can be awkward at first. It was English week during a recent visit, so first-grade teacher Isabel Pinedo asked her class – without translating into Spanish – for a two-digit number whose sum is 9 and whose second digit is double the first.
Attempting answers were Ben, Duncan, Joe, Chris, Andrew, Joe again, and Abigail, who got it right – 36.
Silence from Alejandra, Neyra, Carolina, Fernando, Julio, Socarro, Eduardo and Luis. Could they really have been picking anything up?
Yes, says Sarai Ornelas. In many ways, Sarai fits the stereotype of a Mexican-American doomed to the sort of economic and intellectual marginalization Unz and Montero decry. She shares a single-wide trailer with five relatives, she entered kindergarten knowing only Spanish, and her immigrant parents struggle with English.
When Sarai speaks English, however, she seems to have made precisely the sort of educational and cultural leap that English for the Children seeks. Speaking flawless American “preteen,” Sarai shows off her cat Candy’s kittens, wonders where she stashed her rock collection, says she can’t wait for the next Harry Potter novel and tells of her desire to learn “lots and lots” more languages.
Sarai’s parents, Hugo and Guadalupe, send their two younger children to Harris because they were so impressed with how rapidly Sarai overtook them in English without losing her Spanish.
“We think it’s a good way to learn,” says Hugo Ornelas. The native of Juarez, Mexico, used to get Sarai to sleep by murmuring the numbers one through 10 in English and French, hoping the few foreign words he had to offer would take root and blossom.
“We have to learn English because we live and work here, but we have to stay with the original language, and I guess these issues don’t have to do with politics. This is education,” Ornelas says.
English-speaking parents like Harris, too. Paul and Marilyn Thayer put two children through Harris.
“One of the greatest gifts we could offer our children would be to be bilingual,” says Paul Thayer.
Now teenagers, son Daniel and daughter Maile function well in both languages, their father says: “All the evidence that we have is that they had an exceptional education in every way.”
Also using a dual-language approach is Billie Martinez Elementary in Greeley. Maria Diaz was a student there in the days before any concessions were made to English learners. She learned English, but not without resentment.
“It wasn’t an easy time for me. I struggled and my parents struggled,” she recalls.
Now Diaz’s son Alex is a student there. The school offers a better education and a warmer welcome to parents than it did when she was young, Diaz says.
“Kids are learning English,” she says. “That’s the thing a lot of these (anti-bilingual) people are ignoring. They’re not not learning English; they’re also learning Spanish. And that’s not hurting anyone.”
Another Greeley parent, Lorena Mendoza, who only speaks Spanish, adds that a year after leaving Martinez for a middle school where classes are in English only, her daughter Daniela had a 3.8 grade point average. The only thing coming between Daniela and academic perfection: a B in gym.
Dual-language idea costly
Unz says dual-language schools are rare because they are expensive to run, and his ballot issue “would restrict them in exactly the same way it restricts regular bilingual programs,” which don’t include English speakers. He has never visited one.
“I don’t see how it’d teach me anything,” he says.
Not all immigrant parents favor bilingual education. If they believe rapid English acquisition is the key to their children’s success, Unz argues, why stand in their way?
Caught in a tug of war between pro-bilingual educators and an anti-bilingual parent is Judith Saenz. She’s a star student at Indian Peaks Elementary in Longmont, which uses the type of program Unz calls “regular” bilingual education, in which Spanish-speaking students are grouped together and taught largely in Spanish for several years. Principal Julie McVickar introduced a visitor to Judith to show what bilingual techniques can accomplish, only to hear Judith reveal her father thinks it’s a crock.
“He doesn’t think I’m learning a lot of English by people talking to me in Spanish,” Judith said.
Then again, she said that in English.
“A lot of people come to the country and want to give up the Spanish, but I think they’re harming the kids,” McVickar says.
If the initiative passes, bilingual programs could continue only if parents annually signed a waiver.
That sounds easy, but the researcher hired by the California legislature to study that state’s English for the Children initiative says some principals haven’t cooperated.
“Parents may show up at a school and say, “I want that option,’ and the immediate response is, “Well, we don’t do that here,’ ” says Tom Parrish, managing research scientist at the American Institutes for Research in Palo Alto, Calif.
Mark Lubbers, principal of Central Elementary in Longmont, hopes it never comes to that. “What if we were just talking about giving kids the support they need to be successful?” says Lubbers, who favors bilingual education.
“With one-year immersion, your time is fixed. That means everyone learns at the same rate. People don’t do that.”