Un Grito (a Call) to Battle

Schools: Bilingual teachers vow war on an initiative that would change instruction of non-English speakers. They say the public doesn't understand their classroom methods or what's at stake in vote.

SAN JOSE–They are the missionaries of bilingual education in a state with more immigrant students than any other, true believers who have staked their careers on the premise that teaching those children in two languages is better than teaching in English alone.

Some grew up with a language other than English in a time when educators shamed or punished students who spoke in their native tongues. Others, born into America’s linguistic majority, learned the Spanish they needed to connect with its most prominent minority.

Now a statewide vote is approaching on a ballot initiative that would repudiate their lives’ work–a measure that enrages, perplexes and distresses the thousands gathered here this week at the annual conference of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education, the nation’s largest conclave of bilingual teachers and advocates.

To them, a vote to require English-only instruction in public schools is a vote to toss children into the proverbial ocean without a life vest. They fear that many of California’s 1.4 million public school children who are not fluent in English would sink.

“Sometimes, when I hear people talk, I feel like crying and screaming,” said Catherine King, 27, a bilingual elementary school teacher from Sacramento who plans to resist the law if it passes. “I really don’t think that people who are supporting this thing understand what will happen.”

That “thing” is the “English for the children” measure on the June 2 ballot, sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron K. Unz and Orange County schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman. Arguing that bilingual education has been a failure since it was instituted in the 1970s, the two sponsors are seeking to replace native-language programs in public schools with one year of English “immersion” lessons before putting students into mainstream classes.

Educators who “willfully and repeatedly” defy the law would be held personally liable for lawsuits. The measure has fared well in public opinion surveys, and the initiative campaign is funded largely by Unz’s extensive personal fortune.

Leaders of CABE (pronounced KAH-bay), as the bilingual education group is known, view the measure as perhaps the gravest threat to their profession in nearly a quarter-century. And they vowed to launch an all-out counterattack against what they charge is a smear.

They put up “No on Unz” posters depicting a teacher gagged with a scarf. They asked their troops to give money and time. They gave fiery speeches, mindful that they need to rouse their constituents. In years past, such battles have been fought in the state Legislature.

“We can no longer afford to be sleeping giants,” said Santiago Wood, superintendent of the 16,000-student Alum Rock School District in San Jose, where four out of five students have limited English skills, to a crowd Wednesday as the four-day conference opened.

Another San Jose superintendent, Joe Coto of the 23,000-student Eastside Union High School District, pleaded: “As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. So we have to defeat it here in our own state, all right?”

But whether the fury will gel into a convincing campaign remains to be seen. Many teachers at the conference, while not conceding the election, said they are banking on the courts to stop the measure. And others seemed more interested in workshops on “dual immersion”–an increasingly popular method of teaching Spanish speakers English and vice versa–than in strategy sessions on defeating Unz.

In fact, for connoisseurs, those who know LEP (limited English proficient) from FEP (fully English proficient) and their ESL (English as a second language) from their SDAIE (specially designed academic instruction in English), the San Jose McEnery Convention Center was a bilingual education bazaar. It was a place to shed political pressures, swap stories with like-minded teachers from up and down the state, check out new bilingual or native-language textbooks and, perhaps, look for a job.

Dozens of school districts, including Los Angeles Unified and Santa Ana Unified, set up recruiting booths. With a statewide shortage of bilingual teachers estimated at more than 26,000–and growing daily as California reduces the size of elementary classes and attracts more immigrants–personnel directors are scrambling to find qualified instructors who speak Spanish or Asian languages, including Vietnamese and Hmong.

But the ballot initiative could hamper their efforts–and prove a boon to educators in states where bilingual education is less besieged. “We’ve had people here today come up and say, ‘If the Unz initiative passes, we are leaving,’ ” said Alejandra Sotomayor of the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona.

Others who could be hurt include publishers with a large stake in the California bilingual market, among them Scholastic Inc., Houghton Mifflin Co., Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement and CTB/McGraw Hill, all of which helped pay for the conference.

“I’m sure that our business would lose,” said Teresa Mlawer, president of Lectorum Publications Inc., who was selling storybooks including Dr. Seuss in translation (“Huevos Verdes con Jamon,” or “Green Eggs and Ham”). “But I’m not really concerned about that. We have other markets–Texas, New York. I’m concerned about the children.”

Some teachers said they had already taken the first steps toward political action.

Larry McKiernan, 26, who has taught in the Pasadena Unified district for three years, said he went to a school board meeting last month to support a resolution against the initiative.

Bea Gonzales, 55, of the San Diego County Office of Education, who recalled being forced to forgo her native Spanish as a schoolchild in Texas under penalty of a nickel fine for every breach, said she had given the campaign $500. Its goal is $3 million; campaign officials say they have raised more than $1 million.

Three teachers and a principal from the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District in Orange County said they had talked with neighbors, spoken with state lawmakers, called radio shows and written letters to the editors of newspapers, all of which had gone unpublished. They said they are often frustrated that their message–that English is taught in bilingual classrooms–is not getting through.

“It’s very hard to educate somebody who is not ready to listen,” said Ligia Alvarado-Stowell, a third-grade teacher at Topaz Elementary School in Fullerton. “People often forget the ‘bi’ in bilingual, meaning two languages.”

Strategists for the anti-Unz campaign, aware of the difficulty of explaining bilingual education to skeptics in the electorate, have decided that bilingual educators won’t make the best spokesmen for the cause. The bilingual association is not among the groups signing the ballot argument against the initiative.

And word went out at the conference that the campaign will not seek to defend bilingual education. Rather, it will attack the initiative point by point as “untested,” “experimental” and, in the words of one critic, “Unz-American.” An anti-initiative consultant warned the educators that they needed to become “politically bilingual,” speaking in language voters can understand.

That approach may make good politics. But it disappointed some people here who want the bilingual association to do more in public.

“Hey, this is it,” Frances Navarrette, a bilingual teacher from Fresno, told a campaign strategy session. “If we don’t defeat the Unz initiative, this is the last time we’re going to get together. If we’re going to go out, let’s go out with a bang.”

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