Hector Ayala credits his success as an adult to English immersion as a child.
That is a main reason the Cholla High Magnet School teacher is leading the campaign for a ballot measure to ban bilingual education.
Ayala began his U.S. schooling as a third-grader at Lincoln Elementary School in Nogales, Ariz., after moving there from Mexico with his family.
Mrs. Hayden was his teacher.
“She was the archetypal white woman. Very blonde, very white-skinned. She was American,” said Ayala, now co-chairman of English for the Children-Arizona. “She would make us sing, play the piano, teach spelling. She was a perfect teacher.”
Two months into school, Ayala, then 9, was praised by his mother for reading “Run, Dick, Run.”
In Nogales, Ayala was never punished for speaking Spanish. He doesn’t remember discrimination against his friends, either.
“People say I’m a coconut because I didn’t,” Ayala said.
Never an “A” student but always an avid reader, Ayala worked in restaurants after high school, rising to an assistant manager at the now-defunct Sambo’ s. Ayala decided to start college shortly after Sambo’s closed to become a high school English teacher.
His goal was to go into bilingual education.
“I was a believer in bilingual education,” Ayala said. “Every time that a professor painted a picture of how it would be and the kids would be bilingual, I thought, wow, excellent.”
But once he entered the bilingual program at the University of Arizona, he found it to be soft, emphasizing culture more than language.
“There’s very little scholarship in bilingual education,” Ayala said. “Bilingual education is no more than being sensitive to the needs of Hispanic students.”
A few years later, Ayala saw that bilingual education wasn’t working.
In his class at Cholla, two ninth-graders floundered at a third-grade level. He figured it was because these students, who always spoke Spanish, had just moved here from Mexico a few years ago, as they had told him.
Not so, said their mother. These girls were born here. They went through Tucson Unified School District schools.
Ayala said he has seen many students like these during his 13 years of teaching. Talking to their parents and other teachers led Ayala to help spearhead this campaign.
“The reason we are so confident is that we have talked to people who say that is the norm,” Ayala said.