Rowdy group disrupts anti-bilingual education event

Friends and foes of bilingual education claimed they are trying to help children at a news conference yesterday announcing an initiative to abolish the method.

But the children present ended up crying – frightened by the shouting match between supporters and opponents.

English for the Children Arizona took out petitions yesterday for a statewide proposition to replace bilingual education with yearlong English immersion programs. The group plans to start today gathering the 112,000 signatures needed to put the proposal – similar to the one California voters passed in June – on the 2000 ballot.

Before heading to Phoenix to file paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office, the Tucson-based group tried to hold a news conference at El Rio Neighborhood Center.

But it was hard to hear their statements because about 100 bilingual education supporters chanted and screamed at about 10 English for the Children members. The beleaguered group was flanked by Ron Unz, the California millionaire who spearheaded the California proposition and is helping the local group.

Sign-waving bilingual backers called the proposition proponents child abusers and Ku Klux Klan members. In unison, the protesters yelled, “Unz go home.”

“We’re trying to have a peaceful press conference,” said Mike Martinez of English for the Children.

A few children wearing “English for the Children” T-shirts sobbed, as their parents and grandparents hugged them while backed up against a wall. The children were later led away from the ruckus.

“They were scared with all of the yelling. They have never been in anything like this,” said initiative supporter Gloria Martinez, the grandmother of two bilingual education pupils.

“This is how they show their education – calling names,” Martinez said of protesters.

She later said, “They love to see the kids cry so they can say we’re child abusing.”

Alejandra Sotomayor, president of the Tucson Association for Bilingual Education, said the proposition backers were using the children as puppets.

“All I know is what they are doing is hurting children. An obvious example is bringing them here today,” said Sotomayor, who didn’t see the children crying.

Five police officers were on hand, but made no arrests.

The protesters included bilingual teachers, parents of bilingual-education students and leaders in the Hispanic community, including Supervisor Dan Eckstrom, Lorraine Lee of Chicanos por la Causa and two founders of Tucson Unified School District’s bilingual education program – Adalberto Guerrero and Hank Oyama. See related story.

Their ire was aimed at the leaders of the anti-bilingual education initiative – Maria Mendoza, who led Hispanics in the class-action desegregation lawsuit against Tucson Unified School District in the 1970s, and Hector Ayala, an English teacher at Cholla High Magnet School.

Some protesters got in the faces of Ayala and Mendoza.

“This is what I heard when the desegregation case was going on,” Mendoza said. “I know what we’re doing is the right thing.”

The demonstrators also shouted at Unz, who has donated thousands of dollars to the cause. He said he took it in stride, as he is used to being outnumbered by bilingual supporters at California events.

The sign-waving protesters followed Unz to his car, telling him to go home. They cheered when he drove off.

Both sides disagree on the best and fastest way to teach English to speakers of other languages.

The initiative would require that limited-English students be put in one-year of English immersion classes before transferring directly to mainstream courses.

Parents, however, could request that their children receive bilingual instruction. In California, tens of thousands of parents have been making that choice.

One way the Arizona initiative differs from the California proposition is a requirement that students from second grade up take annual standardized tests to track their English progress.

Proposition organizers say English immersion allows students to learn English faster. They say the bilingual method, which uses the students’ native language, stalls their English.

Bilingual education supporters say that students learn English best when they are assisted in their native language. Bilingual education has teachers use the students’ native language for core subjects, gradually transitioning into more and more English. The goal is fluency in both languages.

Although TUSD allows parents to opt out of bilingual education, Gloria Martinez found out that her grandchildren would have to transfer to another school for other methods.

Martinez wants them to stay at Mission View Elementary School, which is three streets away from their house, but she doesn’t think they are learning.

“We want them to have English,” Martinez said. “They’ve wasted so much time in interpreting.”

Other parents, such as Alma Armendariz, disagree. Her two daughters attend first and fifth grades at Davis Bilingual Magnet School.

Armendariz, a former bilingual teacher, said she has seen the method work in the classroom.

“Now that I’m raising children, I know it works,” Armendariz said.

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