It’s March 2003, more than three years after Arizonans banned bilingual education in favor of one-year immersion classes.

Rodrigo, 16, sits in class and stares. His head hurts.

For the last 20 minutes, Mrs. Garcia has been discussing the separation of church and state.

She lost Rodrigo 19 minutes and 25 seconds ago.

“For the rest of the period, let’s read Chapter 20 silently,” says Mrs. Garcia. “There will be a quiz tomorrow.”

Sigh. She knows a quarter of the class won’t finish the short chapter. Half of the class will finish but will not understand. Most will flunk the quiz or score very low.

Most in the class are fairly new immigrants, here five years or less. All got the mandatory one-year of English immersion. The only ones who really benefited, however, were those who already had good academic skills in their native Spanish. Now most of these kids are officially dysfunctional in two languages.

About half, she knows, will, in fact, drop out of school. The service industry beckons.

Rodrigo needs Spanish to learn English and all the other core topics in which he is also struggling. Mrs. Garcia needs to use Spanish to teach.

Both are out of luck.

Since Prop. 203 passed, teachers who could use Spanish have been afraid to. One of the initiative’s provisions allows any parent in any school district to sue. Some zealots have done just that. Though the suits haven’t amounted to much, they’ve had a chilling effect on teachers.

It could be worse, Mrs. Garcia thinks. Last year, she was teaching third graders. Much of the class time was spent coloring and drawing while Mrs. Garcia devoted time to the individual students who needed special attention.

The door opens and Miss Grady, a first-year teacher, comes in with that imploring look in her eyes.

“Esther,” she pleads. “Can you come over and help me explain for just a minute. A few just don’t understand prepositions.”

“Samantha, you know I can’t. I can’t even do it in my own class,” she says, her voice unintentionally rising in exasperation. “I’m sorry Samantha. I can’t.”

A year of English immersion was simply not enough. Rodrigo is plowing through the chapter, but his mind is elsewhere. Tomorrow, he must take the AIMS test.

He’s been told he has to pass to graduate. He will have a few more chances to take it and he knows he can stay in high school to age 21 until he passes. It’s no consolation.

His sister is a senior. They haven’t told their parents that she surely won’t be graduating this year.

He comes across a word, “tithe,” and he doesn’t understand.

Mrs. Garcia tries to explain. She knows the word in Spanish, but doesn’t use it. Five minutes later, both student and teacher are frustrated.

She bends down and whispers the word in Spanish, “diesmo” and then quickly looks around to see if anyone heard.

Other teachers have been using their Spanish, waging guerrilla warfare. They’ve been more concerned with kids learning than with the letter of the law.

Whatever that is.

Three years after 203, principals and superintendents are still issuing conflicting statements.

Rodrigo used to dream of college. He doesn’t anymore. He feels lost.

“No soy idiota (I’m not an idiot),” he mutters under his breath.

Mrs. Garcia hears. She whispers, “Yo se. (I know)”

Reach Pimentel at [email protected] or (602) 444-8210. His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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