So there I was, vacationing in Mexico with my husband, trying to converse in Spanish and constantly tripping over my high school French. And with no one but myself to blame.
My parents told me, those many years ago, that I should study Spanish instead of French. But I knew better — I was a teenager.
I recall very haughtily telling my mother, “I’m just as likely to visit France as Spain.”
Duh. I guess I wasn’t enough of a geography student to notice Mexico was a mere few hours’ drive away from the Phoenix neighborhood where I grew up.
It’s that kind of ego and blindness that bothers me about Arizona’s current bilingual education debate.
The tussle over whether bilingual education, English immersion or a limited version of both should be used in our schools to teach children whose first language is not English should be solely about what’s best for the children.
Both sides spout examples of why their way works and the other doesn’t. But it is unrealistic to believe every child learns in the same manner or that every teacher instructs to the same degree of effectiveness. As with so many things, politicizing a problem oversimplifies it.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that something has to change. According to a report released this month by the Arizona Department of Education, only 4 percent of limited English proficient students last school year had learned enough English to transfer into regular classrooms. That’s despite an investment of $361 million.
The trick now will be to actually improve those numbers, not just change them.
One of the main complaints voiced against the status quo of bilingual ed is the lack of parental choice allowed. People, especially those with Hispanic surnames, have at times been unable to pull their children out of bilingual ed — even when those children spoke only English. School districts often cry for local control, but that control must be in partnership with the parents.
Parents need to become aware of the options that are surfacing this year, understand how they would affect their children, and take steps to help.
Also needed is a closer monitoring of how well programs are working. It shouldn’t have taken three decades to decide that bilingual ed doesn’t seem to be resulting in English fluency.
This problem wouldn’t be so emotionally dicey if our community realized what a boon it would be for everyone to become fluent in both Spanish and English.
Everywhere I traveled in Mexico, I was made to feel welcome, even though I barely spoke the language. People were friendly and, when they realized I wanted to speak Spanish, they encouraged me. When I spoke English, they accommodated me. The country embraces its widespread dual fluency.
Yet people who live and work in Arizona and don’t speak primarily English are treated as second-rate.
The issue of how to teach English remains heated. There is money attached to bilingual education programs, and where there is money, there are people who wish to get their hands on it.
There is ethnicity involved in the debate, and where there is ethnicity, there invariably follow charges of racism, often from all sides. Few labels these days are as politically incorrect as “racist.”
And there is the bureaucracy of the public school system, with its occasional disdain for the questions of parents.
That’s a lot to juggle and still come out thinking only of what’s good for children.
For those who are as geography-challenged as I was as a teen, Arizona is a border state. It was, in fact, once part of Mexico.
Those of us living here should be embracing the richness of our heritage rather than shoving Spanish out the back door.