Dominique Chavez can’t tell her daughter’s story without crying. It happens when the 30-year-old single mother wonders whether an educational program that was supposed to brighten the child’s future might actually dim it.

Her daughter, Sarena, 10, can’t read or write as well as other fifth-graders. She scores below grade level and attends a special reading group. She finds social studies difficult because of “all the big words.” Shy and unassertive, she lacks confidence.

Chavez is terrified. She began to worry when Sarena was a second- grader at Clarendon Elementary.

“We were driving. I was pointing to billboards and asking her what they said,” recalled Chavez.

“She didn’t know. Then, I realized: ‘Oh God, something’s wrong. She doesn’t know how to read.’ “

When Chavez confronted officials at Clarendon, they told her to “be patient” but didn’t offer any reason for Sarena’s troubles. Chavez suspects that she knows the reason. But she hesitates to say it out loud. Her father raised her never to see herself as a victim.

Still, Chavez has slowly become convinced that Sarena has indeed been victimized. And the culprit is bilingual education.

Sarena, who speaks only English, was roped into the program in kindergarten. That happened, her mother later learned from a teacher, because of the girl’s Spanish surname, Marquez. Sarena remained in bilingual classes, much of which were taught in Spanish, through the second grade. She then returned to the mainstream, where she has struggled. She now attends Mensendick Elementary School.

“She was robbed of the most important years of her life,” Chavez said.

Bilingual educators talk about how “the research” proves that teaching non-English-speaking students in native languages works. They do not talk about casualties such as Sarena Marquez.

Nor do they like to talk about an April report by the state Department of Education which found that only 2.8 percent of Limited English Proficient students had, in 1996-97, learned enough English to re-enter the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Hispanic parents in Tucson want an end to bilingual education in Arizona. They favor an initiative such as California’s Proposition 227. The initiative, passed by voters in June, requires that students be placed in all-English classrooms. A subversive reform, it also reverses the existing power structure in education by giving parents such as Dominique Chavez veto power over their children’s placement in bilingual instruction.

Members of the Tucson group have persuaded the sponsors of the “English for the Children” initiative to help them launch something similar in Arizona. That launch may be imminent.

Ron Unz, who spearheaded Prop. 227, said last week that he is prepared to file an Arizona initiative with the Secretary of State’s Office as soon as early December. If enough signatures are collected, the issue probably will be decided in 2000.

New polls suggest that many Arizonans already have decided. A poll last month by the Behavioral Research Center found that a 227-type initiative was supported by 69.7 percent of respondents.

The Legislature, which hates to be outperformed by initiatives, will get into the act when it reconvenes in January. A House bill sponsored by Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, would cut off funding for bilingual programs after three years. A Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-west Phoenix, would increase bilingual funding and require districts to hire only credentialed teachers.

The status-quo Lopez bill shows how tone-deaf Hispanic leaders are to the screams of their constituents.

Screams like those of Dominique Chavez, whose daughter now suffers from a stunted sense of possibility.

When Chavez asked Sarena whether she might like to join an acting class, she said that she couldn’t because she “can’t read.” When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Sarena says she wants to open a nail-polishing salon.

Those self-imposed limits trouble Chavez. An executive with Sprint/Paranet, she’s willing to pay for a private tutor to help her daughter make up lost ground.

The 10-year-old doesn’t know much about politics and ballot initiatives and worthless politicians. What she does know is that teachers do important work.

That might explain her choice for a backup career. If the nail thing doesn’t work out, Sarena wants to be a kindergarten teacher.

“I’d like to teach kids how to read,” she said. “Because if they don’t know how, when they get older, they’ll struggle.”

Now if we can just get bilingual enthusiasts to stop acting like children and start thinking like them.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. can be reached at 444-4977 or at [email protected] via e-mail.

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