Old ways die hard

Bilingual education is still alive and well in Santa Ana, Calif.

How would you feel if you were told that your kindergartner was assigned to a classroom in which instruction is given entirely in Spanish, even though he doesn’t understand a word of the language? And if you were told, further, that your local elementary school does not have any English-language instruction in kindergarten and grades one through three?

You would probably react pretty much the same way that Veronica Gonzalez and Stephanie Daniel did when faced with just that situation in Edison School in the Santa Ana Unified School District in Orange County, Calif. Gonzalez is a third-generation and Daniel a third-generation American; both speak fluent English and little or no Spanish.

And both were outraged. “On the first day, the teacher was speaking Spanish,” Gonzalez told a group of parents who gathered to discuss the issue in a neat, wrought-iron-fenced, American-flag-flying Santa Ana neighborhood. “Homework was assigned in Spanish. They were singing songs in Spanish.” Added Daniel: “On papers they sent home, the directions were in Spanish. My son knows the months of the year in Spanish, and ‘Happy Birthday.’ ”

All this, even though, says Gonzalez, “We requested an all-English class … .I went up to my son’s kindergarten teacher. She told me that there were no English-only classes in the school. ‘If you want one, go to another school.’ ”

That was not so easy. Transfers to schools offering English-language instruction were turned down; they were outside the zone. Parents who want their children to go to the so-called fundamental school line up to wait overnight outside the school district headquarters to try to get a spot. Parents can get transfers if their child has a sibling in another school, but that leaves many out.

The problem is a personal one for Veronica Gonzalez and Stephanie Daniel, and seems to raise only local issues. Yet it’s also a situation with national implications. In the 2000 census, more than 1 in 6 people under 18 living in the United States were classified as Hispanic?a census-created category with no rigorous definition that is based on self- (or parent) classification. Many of these children are the sons and daughters of recent immigrants who speak little or no English; others, like Gonzalez’s son, are the sons and daughters of multigenerational American citizens who speak little or no Spanish. For three decades many of these children were shunted into so-called bilingual education classes, with instruction primarily or exclusively in Spanish, for as long as three, five, or even seven years. The result has been that many Hispanic children have not mastered English sufficiently well to qualify for higher education or good jobs. Some have been separated from the larger American culture and the opportunities it offers.

This practice was supposed to stop in California after voters in June 1998 passed Proposition 227, which limited Spanish-language instruction to one year unless parents sought and received waivers. But some districts, like Santa Ana Unified, have resisted and undermined 227. Santa Ana has symbolic importance here: It is one of the most heavily Hispanic enclaves in the United States. Santa Ana’s population of 338,000 in the 2000 census was 76 percent Hispanic; the student body in the school district is 92 percent Hispanic.

The apparent culprit in Santa Ana is local political operator Nativo Lopez, elected school board president by a narrow margin in 2000. Gloria Matta Tuchman, cochairman of the drive that led to passage of Proposition 227 and a Santa Ana teacher herself, tells the story: “Following the passage of Prop. 227, we have school board member Nativo Lopez holding parent meetings at school sites, telling parents about the merits of bilingual education and convincing them to request parental waivers for this program. We have had the majority of the Santa Ana School Board members allowing him to conduct such meetings, even though it might be viewed as unethical and coercion of parents.” The number of bilingual students in Orange County, which fell from 17,180 to 6,954 in one year after the passage of 227, has now risen to 7,982, with 6,302 of them in Santa Ana Unified.

A new principal in Edison, according to the parents at the recent meeting, increased the number of Spanish-language classes and reduced the number of English-language classes and called parents repeatedly to ask them to sign waivers to keep their children in Spanish-language classes. Evidently, Lopez is determined to strengthen Latino identity, though he has a rather odd concept of it; he accused school board member Rosemarie Avila of not being a Latina because she is partly of German descent, even though she was born in Guatemala and many Latin Americans have ancestors who were from countries other than Spain (the No. 1 example: Mexico’s President Vicente Fox).

Vivian Martinez, who organized the parents’ meeting, tells of other problems. “Our good teachers, the experienced teachers, are leaving the school because they’re so upset,” she complains. “Many of our teachers now have emergency credentials.” She says that in 1999 Lopez said that he would get rid of Anglos in the system. And, Gonzalez says: “Last night he said he would get Spanish at the junior high schools and high schools.” Her husband adds, “They [the kids] will get jobs in the fields or in the car wash.”

The parents have other complaints. Beatriz Salas, a 1999 immigrant from Mexico City, was not able to get her teenage son in special-education classes. She says that Lopez offered to help her in 1999 if she agreed to join his organization, Hermandad Mexicana, and get others to attend its demonstrations. Tony Garcia, a recent Santa Ana High School graduate, was harassed by school administrators after he refused, as student body president, to sign blank purchase orders. Lopez and Hermandad have a fragrant past. Hermandad was accused of vote fraud in the closely contested 1996 congressional election between Republican Robert Dornan and Democrat Loretta Sanchez, and, in 1997, some $500,000 of Hermandad’s government funds were unaccounted for.

Martinez and the other parents have responded to what they regard as bad public policy the old-fashioned American way?politics. They have launched a recall drive against Nativo Lopez. They need 8,600 signatures from Santa Ana’s 57,000 registered voters to get the recall on the ballot in November, and then they have to beat Lopez and Hermandad. It’s by no means clear whether they’ll succeed. But the fact that Hispanic parents in one of America’s most heavily Hispanic cities have gone to such lengths?have taken on a powerful and adept local political boss?to oppose bilingual education is evidence that at least some Hispanic parents oppose bilingual education and Spanish-language instruction. The Hispanic organizations?many of them with no significant membership and financed largely by establishment foundations that support bilingual education and try to keep American children in Spanish-language instruction as long as possible?might do well to take a trip to Santa Ana.

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