Unlikely ally in English-only clash

Vega mounts campaign to make changes in education system

REDWOOD CITY—Fernando Vega likes to tell tales. About the time he secured college prep classes for his oldest son, or fought for bilingual education in local schools or worked to raise the standing of the Latino community.

Then he tells you he screwed up.

Not on all the battles, but certainly on the bilingual education front. He was simply wrong, Vega says now.

“I saw it as a tool to get to the means. It didn’t work,” Vega said. “Let’s try something else. Let’s re-exaimine it.”

A Latino Democrat who habla espanol muy bien, Vega is an unlikely proponent of English for the Children, a state ballot initiative sponsored by Palo Alto entrepreneur and Republican Ron Unz.

The initiative calls for teaching all children—regardless of their native tongue—in English.

Parents would have to specifically request their children be placed in bilingual classes, a flip-flop of the current system, Unz said.

Vega serves as honorary chair of the Peninsula district for Unz’s campaign. A green slate with “English for the Children” written in chalk sits on his dirt yard in Redwood City. Another sign rests on his white station wagon.

He distributes pamphlets and gathers some of the 430,000 signatures the initiative will need to qualify for next June’s ballot.

He fields phone calls. Lots of phone calls, not just from interested residents but from local newspapers, the Associated Press and the Boston Globe.

“I’m 73,” Vega said. “If I pass this [ballot initiative] it is the biggest gift I give to Latino kids.”

Kids lured Vega into the political arena from the start. His oldest son, Oscar, signed up for high school physics, algebra and government in 1964.

He was given general math, wood working and ceramics, Vega said.

Incensed, Vega spoke with the Sequoia High School counselor who assigned Oscar the classes. He was told that college preparatory classes had limited enrollment and since Oscar, a Latino, couldn’t afford college it was best to prepare him for a blue-collar life.

Vega fought until his son was allowed into the advanced academic classes and Oscar went on to college. Fernando earned a reputation as a Latino advocate and was eventually appointed to the Redwood City school board in 1969.

During that same time parents rallied to have a bilingual expert for the district’s growing Latino population.

“One teacher said, ‘They’re very nice kids. I want to teach them, but I can’t I don’t speak Spanish.’ ” Vega said.

Vega sided with the parents who argued schools should hire teachers who speak Spanish and English. Nearly two decades later, Vega says it was a mistake.

Children aren’t learning English rapidly enough, he said, and that means low-paying jobs in their future.

Nearly 1.4 million California students have only limited proficiency in English, according to the state department of education figures. Each year, only about 6 percent of them, a little more than 89,000, become fluent in English.

The statistics are only slightly better in San Mateo County, where 8 percent of the 19,069 students with limited English skills, about 1,480 students, become fluent each year, according to state figures from March 1997.

Critics like Vega say those figures mean bilingual education has a 92 percent failure rate.

But others argue that throwing all students into classes taught exclusively in English is not the answer.

Students who arrive in America when they’re older are often frustrated because they can’t even learn math or science until they master English, said Gloria Siguenza, the county’s coordinator for support services for English learners.

“Kids who don’t speak English, or very little, they’re sitting in the classroom and doing nothing. They’re lucky to some out of high school and get a job,” Siguenza said.

While she agreed that some bilingual programs needed to be reformed, Siguenza believes Unz’s proposal to place everyone in English-only classes is oversimplified.

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