The two fourth-grade boys fidgeted in their desks but didn’t utter a peep. They peered around the class, seemingly not seeing anything in particular.

When the teacher spoke, nothing registered on their faces to show they heard. One boy gnawed on his pencil point, the other looked down at his desk, unsure what to do. Neither made a sound.

Not even the swirl of activity around them signaled what they should do. As the rest of the class dug around for their books, the two sat there quizzically.

No one leaned over to whisper what they should do. No one offered to help. No one even looked at them. They could have been invisible.

Finally, the teacher noticed they were doing nothing and stomped over. ”Get out your books.”

Nothing happened.

”Get out your books!”

Still nothing.

Exasperated, she motioned them over to her desk. She scribbled the assignment on a scrap of paper, then motioned them out the door, without ever saying a word.

Meanwhile, the rest of class worked on their assignment: Write a paragraph about something scary.

Too bad the boys didn’t understand. No doubt their paragraphs would have been about what it’s like to attend school and not speak English.

These are the kinds of kids buffeted by the storms raging over bilingual education. According to the Arizona Department of Education, fewer than 3 percent of students in Arizona’s bilingual education classes are learning enough English to join regular classes.

Nearly 95,000 of the estimated 750,000 public school students are limited English proficient. That means they may understand some English or even no English. More than half of them are being taught English as a second language.

The program’s goals are good: The kids will learn English and then join regular classes.

Does it work? No, not from what I saw. It’s easy to criticize the teacher for her insensitivity, but she has 25 or more students who do speak English. Where is her time and attention better spent? It’s a tough balancing act.

The two boys I watched have been ”mainstreamed,” which means that they are in the regular classroom. But they also attend ESL – English as a Second Language – classes. Part of the day, they spend in those classes, trying to learn subjects in their native language; the remainder of the day is spent the regular classroom.

Their ESL teacher is used as a resource when their classroom teacher has problems. That’s why the boys were sent to him.

But by the time they returned, ready to work, the class was onto something else and the kids were lost – again. Their whole day was spent scurrying between teachers, trying to figure out what to do, accomplishing nothing.

Both boys’ families had come from Mexico within the past few months. Neither knew English when he arrived. Judging from how they acted in the class, they still hadn’t learned any.

So what should be done with these kids?

It’s a dilemma confronting many schools. California just passed an initiative that essentially wipes out bilingual education. Many parents and educators believe that bilingual education has failed thousands of children. What’s most interesting is that most immigrant parents agree.

The bilingual movement is swamped in controversy.

Educators claim that kids need to learn their own language first, then learn English, hence, bilingual education is needed.

Others think immersion is the only way. Stick kids in a class taught in English and teach them. Through gestures, pictures, etc., they’ll catch on. Within a year, they’ll know English. Advocates point to the earlier generations of Irish, Italians, Germans and Albanians, etc., who arrived here knowing no English and learned it.

>From what I’ve seen, and my own experience teaching in Yuma, I would advocate a form of ”immersion.” Stick the non-English speakers in a class and teach them how to read, write and speak English. Nothing else. If it takes a year or more, fine, just make sure they learn English. The sooner, the better.

This need not detract from their native culture, demean their family backgrounds or spur them to forget their heritage. But it’s a way for them to lead a successful and productive life in the United States. In fact, it’s the only way.

We can talk about this, in English or in any other language, but our bilingual programs aren’t working. Communication skills are essential for everyone. The real world is not a sheltered workshop, slowing down or lowering standards to accommodate the less-educated. Children have no time to fidget away their precious opportunity for learning in a uncomprehending daze.

”Immersion” may sound harsh, but if done carefully, it isn’t. Even done poorly, it’s a lot less harsh than what awaits these two boys once they leave class for good.

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