Prop. 203 stirs harsh memories of immersion English classes

Nearly 50 years after Irene Escarcega entered a first-grade immersion English class, she can still feel the sting of that experience.

“The teacher hit me with a ruler because I asked to go to the bathroom,” she recalled of her 1-C class, the moniker given to immersion classes.

Her crime?

She spoke Spanish.

Escarcega had violated the restrictive English-only rule that governed behavior in her classroom in Pirtleville, near the border city of Douglas.

Escarcega would feel the teacher’s heavy hand several times again in 1952.

“It’s something I’d rather not remember,” said Escarcega, a bilingual education teacher at Hollinger Elementary School on West Ajo Way.

In the emotional tug-of-war over Proposition 203, harsh memories from the days of immersion are resurfacing.

“If it passes, history will repeat itself,” Escarcega said.

If the state’s voters pass the initiative on Nov. 7, the one-size-fits-all immersion instruction method will again hamper future generations of limited-English students, said Escarcega and other bilingual education supporters.

The proposition was brought to Arizona by Ron Unz, a California millionaire, a non-educator.

It would end bilingual education. It would require English-only instruction in public schools.

Unlike California’s 1998 ban on bilingual education, Arizona’s version allows no option. Parents can’t choose to have their children taught in their native tongue.

Today about 5 percent of Arizona’s students are in bilingual education programs. Next year, all those children could be in immersion classes.

Many proponents of immersion went through similar programs themselves. They say: “We were immersed in English and we succeeded, so therefore it works.”

But others, like Escarcega, say they succeeded in spite of immersion, not because of it.

Immersion gave students just enough English to survive in a world of menial labor, they say.

In the Tucson Unified School District from 1917 to 1967, limited English-speaking students were all placed in 1-C classes.

Sixty percent of those students did not finish school.

“The legacy of 1-C is that it was a misguided instructional curriculum,” said former Pima Community College President Diego Navarrette, who was himself placed in 1-C.

“It worked at the premise that your (native) language was not worthy,” he said.

I was lucky, I guess. When I entered first grade at Menlo Park Elementary School in 1962, I was not put in 1-C. I suppose I spoke English well enough to pass.

Many of my neighborhood friends, however, were placed in 1-C.

They were labeled as inferior from the get-go. They were ridiculed by fellow students and tagged as underachievers by teachers.

They lost a year or more in laying a strong educational foundation.

Many of them either struggled through high school or gave up.

“It was a tracking system,” said Navarrette, who attended Elizabeth Borton Elementary School. The stigma followed you through your career at school.

“It produced fractured students,” he said.

For many Hispanic, American Indian and Chinese students, placement in 1-C was automatic, “whether they knew English or not,” said professor Mary Carol Combs of the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology.

There were major psychological consequences from being placed in 1-C, said Combs, who is co-authoring a comparative study on bilingual education policy in Arizona and Colorado.

* Contact Ernesto Portillo Jr. at 573-4242 or e-mail at [email protected]

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