Language Barriers

Bilingual education is still a divisive issue in Arizona's schools.

By all accounts, it's an average day in Wilma Amaro's integrated science class. In groups of twos and threes, Pueblo High sophomores are creating diagrams of a frog's internal organs. As they talk to one another--loudly, emphatically--their speech is peppered with laughter in that particular teen-age way.

But these are not ordinary teen-agers, and not everyone can understand them. Living in the United States fewer than five years, these 20 students speak, work and learn in Spanish. They are the future of a bilingual-education system many thought disappeared when Arizona voters approved Proposition 203.

But the aftermath of the proposition, which passed in November 2000 and aimed to reinstate a system of English immersion for non-native speakers in Arizona schools, hasn't been the elimination of bilingual education. Indeed, loopholes in the reformed law may allow more students than ever to receive instruction in Spanish.

"It's exhausting," says Amaro, whose enrollment in two bilingual science classes has increased 25 to 30 percent since 203 passed. "I don't think it (Prop. 203) is going to help the kids any faster."

Proposition 203 mandates that all English learners in Arizona schools be placed in a Structured English Immersion program, which includes English-language classes and English-dominant instruction. But the law also allows for exceptions to this rule if the child demonstrates English proficiency, has special needs or is more than 10 years old.

At two Tucson school districts, these exceptions have translated to a waiver program that has allowed almost 4,000 students at Tucson Unified and 1,350 students at Sunnyside to continue their bilingual classes.

At TUSD and Sunnyside, administrators and activists began planning the waiver program even before the law passed, learning from the experiences of districts in California, where a similar initiative was approved by voters in 1998. About 11,000 students in TUSD and 5,500 in Sunnyside are classified as non-native speakers.

For now, bilingual enrollment numbers are down. Before the proposition, Sunnyside had about 3,200 students enrolled in bilingual education programs, and TUSD enrolled about 5,500. But as the districts promote their new waiver program, they could meet or even exceed their previous numbers, says Leonard Basurto, director of bilingual education at TUSD.

The new law mandates that if more than 20 students in a particular grade level have been approved for waivers, the school must develop a bilingual program. The result: More schools than ever may offer classes in Spanish. By promoting the waiver applications, which are filled out by parents and approved by the district, officials in TUSD hope that more students than ever could receive bilingual education.

"It's a public information campaign," Basurto says of the district's efforts to promote the waiver program. "We believe the law requires us to do so."

But not everyone agrees. Hector Ayala, co-director of English for the Children-Arizona, says TUSD's efforts are nothing more than legal subversion. He says he thinks that the district is coercing parents into applying for waivers.

"I suspect it's sabotage," says Ayala, an English teacher at Cholla Magnet High School. "These guys are just going to write up waivers for everybody."

Amaro says it's possible that some parents in TUSD applied for the waivers because they were afraid of the proposition and not because their children needed them. The law renders teachers virtually powerless to place students in bilingual programs.

"I think teachers should have the option (to recommend a student for bilingual education)," Amaro says. "We know the capacity these kids have more than any other person."

Basurto says TUSD hasn't analyzed the percentage of waiver applications that have denied, but insists that all are approved legitimately.

Jeannie Favela, director of bilingual education for the Sunnyside Unified School District, says although many waivers have been granted, students who need bilingual education--those who have not demonstrated proficiency in English--are being denied.

"We had many other requests for waivers, but many students, especially the very young students, did not meet the criteria," Favela says. "Many parents have commented that the students who need bilingual education the most are the ones who don't qualify."

The waivers are important to children, Favela says, because the one-year English immersion mandated by Proposition 203 leaves many young students behind.

Kindergarten and first-grade students are among the hardest hit by the English immersion requirement, Basurto says. Because of their ages, they haven't learned the requisite amount of conversational English--sometimes called "playground English"--that would allow them to qualify for bilingual programs under the new law.

Some parents have complained that their young children come home crying and try to avoid coming to school because they don't understand the language, Basurto says. Under the law, teachers of Structured English Immersion classes cannot use Spanish or other native languages unless necessary and cannot use them for instruction.

"It's a disaster," he says. "There are all kinds of things happening to little kids that weren't happening before."

For this reason, TUSD is developing a three-week language course for young children to help them qualify for bilingual classes, Basurto says.

But Ayala said it is not difficult for children to learn English in these programs, and added that students' anxiety is not due to English-only instruction.

"The teachers have been brainwashing them," he says. "If they're frustrated, they're made to be frustrated."

Favela said that it is "ludicrous" to believe that non-native speakers in SEI programs can learn as efficiently as native English speakers. Putting both groups in the classroom, she says, creates a substantial learning gap.

"While the English learners are trying to acquire English and content, the native English speakers are moving along," Favela said. "ELL (English-language learner) students actually have a double expectation--to learn the English language and master the content."

But the real argument may not be between proponents of English immersion and supporters of bilingual education. According to teachers like Amaro, the underlying problem with students' performance may be the bilingual-education program itself.

Although Amaro says students in her bilingual classes consistently outperform their English-speaking counterparts, many bilingual science and math teachers are forced to teach English instead of subject matter.

"The way it's being practiced doesn't work," says Amaro, who also holds a master's degree in bilingual/bicultural education. "My major gripe about bilingual education in general is that they're language-heavy."

Many of Amaro's students from Mexico have been out of school for several years and aren't even proficient in Spanish. Without this proficiency, they cannot effectively learn English, she said.

Basurto admits that TUSD's bilingual-education system needs work, and says its aim is to include English and Spanish speakers for the benefit of both. Often called dual-immersion, this method is deemed favorable by most on both sides of the bilingual-education debate.

But despite its support from experts, dual immersion is difficult to implement because few English-speaking students want to be in classes where Spanish is spoken, Amaro says. Changing this attitude is a priority for TUSD, according to Basurto.

"We have the most extensive bilingual-education program in the state," he says. "(But) we're far from being where we want to be."

Francisco Sanchez, 15, in the United States since September, says he feels uncomfortable in classes where only English is spoken. Other students, he says, perceive him as being slow or stupid because he is a Mexican national.

"I don't speak to other guys (in English-only classes), and they don't speak to me," he says in slow, careful English. "With others (Spanish speakers), it's easy."

His classmate, 15-year-old Romina Santolaya, agrees. From Caborca, Mexico, the sophomore says her parents applied for the bilingial-education waiver because she sometimes becomes confused in English-only classes.

"I think it's more difficult (to learn)," Santolaya says.

But Ayala argues that comfort isn't the most important factor in students' education, and said the provisions of the law must be more clearly enforced by the state.

Right now, English for the Children-Arizona is working with officials like gubernatorial candidate and former Congressman Matt Salmon to develop a regulatory system for waivers granted by TUSD, Sunnyside and other schools, he added.

Ayala said he's frustrated with how the law has affected students. "We're offering them the same dead-end education we've been offering them all along," he says.

But the real effects of Proposition 203 remain to be seen. Ayala and Basurto said they expect test scores for students in English immersion programs over the next few years to support their respective positions. But it may not be so easy. In California, educational pundits and language activists continue to argue the validity of test scores from various districts. Although initial numbers showed improvement for students in English immersion classrooms, a 2000 study by a Stanford University professor refuted the numbers, sparking further debate.

In Arizona, however, the crowd will wait. The districts and lawyers, the activists and teachers, the students in classrooms like Amaro's must stay tuned to see how their educations are affected by an English-immersion initiative that, in the end, wasn't what any of them thought it would be.

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