State schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan has no assurances for educators who think kids should spend years in bilingual education.

“Information we have tells us that children in bilingual education in this state are languishing,” the state superintendent of public instruction told a roomful of educators last week as pickets chanted outside.

“I would like to see us move these children along into English as quickly as possible. My position is it should not take as long as it is taking.”

By next month, Keegan and staff members at the Arizona Department of Education are expected to decide which of a number of bilingual education bills to support next year. Bills range in philosophy from the virtual elimination of bilingual ed to boosting programs for non-English-speaking children with infusions of money for new classes and teachers.

On Thursday, Keegan sponsored the second of a series of forums with educators and community leaders on the issue.

Such comments, however, infuriate parents and teachers who support bilingual education and frustrate academics who believe they have given the Arizona Department of Education piles of data supporting the value of educating children in Spanish for as long as eight years.

“The children might be speaking English after a few months, but when you try to get them to read and write in English you see how little they really understand,” said Vivian Martinez of the Fowler Elementary School District in Phoenix.

“They speak “social English,’ but their comprehension of subjects like math and social studies is still better in Spanish. It’s better that we teach them those subjects in Spanish so they don’t fall behind.”

Maria Elena Sotomayor, a technical writer for a Tucson engineering firm, traveled in a van with other bilingual education supporters to picket the meeting.

Sotomayor and about 50 others chanted a bilingual slogan, “Exito en dos idiomas (success in two languages), English-plus for Arizona.”

“This is just a bunch of political hogwash,” said Sotomayor, 46, who still recalls the day her fifth-grade teacher made her stay after school and write “I will not speak Spanish in school.”

“Children should have the opportunity to learn more than one language in school.”

Although protesters were allowed at the meeting, speaking was invitation-only. Keegan said she will have an open forum on the issue at the next meeting.

But Keegan said she wonders whether bilingual education students are learning foreign languages at the expense of English and academic subjects.

“Even when we talk about kids who are successful in (bilingual education programs), we are only talking about kids who reach the 35th percentile” on the Stanford 9 achievement test, said Keegan. “I’m not satisfied with that.”



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