Initiative in Arizona seeks an end to bilingual education programs

GILBERT, Ariz. – Third- and fourth-graders rise from their seats, place their hands over their hearts, face the U.S. flag and begin reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Le doy alianza a la bandera de los Estados Unidos . . ., ” the students say in Spanish, instead of the English standard.

Today is Spanish day at Gilbert Elementary, situated in one of the fastest-growing cities in the state, just southeast of Phoenix. The Spanish recital is part of a bilingual program, one of hundreds throughout the state.

“We cover all the instruction that’s required, except that we do it 50 percent in English and 50 percent in Spanish,” said Maria Salas, the teacher. “Our focus is not language; our focus is content through language.”

Such teaching practices have spurred criticism from opponents, who are gathering signatures to place a proposal on the November ballot to ban bilingual instruction.

If they succeed, all forms of bilingual education will be barred from classrooms throughout the state, effective in fall 2001.

“We are not English-only. We are not anti-Mexican,” said Hector Ayala, a high school English teacher in Tucson and one of the initiative organizers. “All we want to do is change one thing in the classroom – change the language from Spanish to all English.”

The English for the Children of Arizona initiative, similar to California’s successful Proposition 227, is intended to force students to acquire English skills by immersing them in the language alongside native English speakers.

Proposal organizers have until July 6 to gather the required 101,762 signatures.

Proponents are alarmed at the possibility of losing Spanish instruction – also known as limited English proficient (LEP) programs and English as a Second Language.

“I think it would be a travesty to eliminate these programs,” said Sheila Rogers, principal at Gilbert Elementary. “It’s just another option, and it’s very rigorous academically. I think it’s a real sad commentary on our society that what we’re worried about is language.”

For Arizona, which has one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the nation, the initiative could mean a complete turnabout in teaching methods. The state has had bilingual programs for more than a decade.

About 140,000 of Arizona’s 860,000 public school children were considered limited English proficient in 1998-99. Nearly 133,000 LEP students participate in some form of bilingual program, at an estimated cost of $160 per student. The overwhelming majority of them are native Spanish speakers.

“To me, bilingual education has always made sense,” said Carlos Bejarano, principal at Guadalupe’s Frank School near Phoenix. The overwhelming majority of the school’s 630 students – from kindergarten through fifth-grade – are Spanish speakers.

“In order for them to learn, they have to be able to understand the teacher,” Mr. Bejarano said. “Other communities have used this technique. The Germans and Italians, they all had their little barrios and used their native language to help teach. What we are doing is no different.

“You build on people’s prior knowledge, and if language is part of prior knowledge, shouldn’t you use that to build on?” he said.

While most agree that students with limited English skills need special handling, many say Arizona is not meeting its obligation in making students proficient in English.

A federal judge in January ruled that Arizona doesn’t spend enough to teach limited-English students and that it places them in classrooms with teachers unprepared to help them.

Some lawmakers and educators hope to pry more money out of the Arizona Legislature. But money, top education officials say, won’t solve the problem.

Lisa Graham Keegan, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, agrees that not enough money is spent on bilingual programs. But she has been adamant that children should not stay in specialized programs for more than three years.

Achievement gap

Only 5.5 percent of LEP students are becoming English proficient each year, according to a state Department of Education report.

“The position of the state is that we want to make students English proficient as quickly as possible,” said John Schilling, director of policy and planning for the Department of Education. “We’re not doing the job now. What we see is a terrible achievement gap.”

The state is assessing various programs. A House bill that took effect last year requires that the state come up with a criterion to determine if a child is English proficient.

State officials would like to see students become proficient as early as within two years. Others say students need more time in their native language.

Along with the money debate, officials, educators and parents are split over how best to educate them.

Proposition 227, which passed in June 1998, did away with California’s 30-year-old system of bilingual education and replaced it with a plan that requires one year of English immersion. Test scores indicate that students limited in English are getting higher scores in standardized tests.

Arizona is watching the results, though top education officials do not support having the bilingual education question put on the ballot.

“Our biggest issue with the initiative is that we don’t believe it should be resolved at the ballot box,” said Mr. Schilling. “This is a social issue. It belongs in legislative hands.”

While Arizona law mandates that a school with at least 10 students must offer an English acquisition program, local districts choose how to blend the two languages.

Dual-language programs, such as the one at Gilbert Elementary, focus on teaching English to immigrant children and Spanish to native English speakers.

Most of the programs require that students move into all-English classrooms after a certain level. But proponents of the initiative criticize the programs’ lack of uniformity.

“What they need is immersion in English,” said Mr. Ayala. “You can’t get proficient without practicing.”

Proponents of bilingual education disagree.

“In a bilingual setting you take the time to explain things so that the students can process the information,” said Ana Hawley of Guadalupe, a first-grade bilingual education teacher for 22 years. “There are a lot of things limited English speakers don’t understand, and the teacher needs to be sensitive. They can learn how to speak English, how to imitate. But can they truly comprehend?”

The other issue muddling the debate is culture.

Most children enrolled in the program are of Mexican descent. In a state that borders Mexico, severing ties between both cultures is nearly impossible. Many of the children travel back and forth, essentially living in two worlds.

It is an asset many parents and teachers would like to keep intact.

“I love the bilingual program, because that way I can help my child with his homework,” said Manuela Lorona, 31, whose 9-year-old son is enrolled in the dual program at Gilbert. “Besides that, with this type of program his roots don’t disappear. The culture goes on.

“My child is completely bilingual. He has mastered both languages equally even though we only speak Spanish at home,” Ms. Lorona said in Spanish. “Even I have learned some English.”

Another 2nd language

Some parents of English speakers say they enrolled their children in dual-language programs to learn Spanish and say the initiative would be a mistake if it succeeds.

“We’ve gotten so global that speaking another language opens up a whole other world for you,” said Celia Miller, whose third-grade daughter, Kimberly, is learning Spanish.

Bilingual proponents said banning Spanish in the classroom places additional burdens and a sense of unacceptance on children who already have a hard time coping with assimilation.

“Why can’t we come here, learn English, keep Spanish, get out of high school, be fluent in both and be able to get a better job?” said Ms. Hawley, who is of Mexican descent. “Why should we forget our past in order to survive in a dominant society?”

Mr. Ayala said that while students should have a sense of identity, bilingual education is not the way to foster that.

“I think it’s exceptionally condescending to be taught the Mexican culture in American schools,” said Mr. Ayala, a native of Sonora, Mexico. “They don’t do that with any other culture.”

Ms. Hawley said that even if the initiative succeeds, bilingual teaching would always be a part of classrooms that need it.

“They can take away my Spanish books, but they can’t take away the nurturing I give the students who need it,” she said. “The reason I became a teacher is so that I could teach my students that no matter where they come from, they have a right to feel safe in my classroom and they have a right to learn as much as they can by using their own language to get ahead.”

Back in Ms. Salas’ class at Gilbert Elementary, a calendar on the wall highlights both the Fourth of July and Cinco de Mayo. The strumming of Latin-style guitar can be heard playing softly in the background as instructions are handed out for the day’s assignment.

“Do I have to write in Spanish today?” one student asks.

“Si, hoy es en Espa?ol. Ma?ana es en Ingles ,” Ms. Salas responds. (“Yes, today is in Spanish. Tomorrow it’s in English.”)

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