Bilingual Blues

This is not the way your grandfather learned English

Kids in Maria Jimenez's fourth grade class at Valley View School in South Phoenix sit at tables reading and discussing books in both Spanish and English, depending on which language their books are written in.

It's a bilingual class. Nearly all of the children are Hispanic, most of them from homes where Spanish is dominant.

Their language of choice is English.
"I have to remind them constantly to speak Spanish," Jimenez says.
Given the emotion-laden argument over bilingual education, that paradox may amuse or annoy you. Why are they in bilingual classes when they already speak English?

Sometimes the conversation devolves into Spanglish.
"Ya tenemos teammates," one child says of his work group. The utterance would drive purists crazy in either language, but too bad. Language goes where it wants to. The speaker is not necessarily confused, he just doesn't know a Spanish word that expresses exactly what he wants to say.

It's a raging misperception that Hispanic kids in bilingual programs don't and won't speak English. Their parents already know from their own experiences that the best jobs aren't available to non-English speakers. And for the most part, the kids can function in everyday English, but they don't think and read and write well enough in English to score well on standardized tests such as the Stanford Achievement Test.

Lisa Graham Keegan, the state superintendent of public instruction, knows this.

"If all you wanted was for them to be speaking English, if you listen on the playground, you'd say, 'Yeah, they're going to be okay,'" she says. "What I'm worried about is what is happening to them academically, and they are in a class by themselves. We're losing them."

State Senator Joe Eddie Lopez knows too.
"The issue is really not an issue of learning English as they know it," he says. "Kids will be communicating in English. It's an issue of using it in a manner that will make them competitive with their peers in the course matter."

About 112,000 of the state's 800,000 school kids are classified as LEP--Limited English Proficient. The majority are Spanish-dominant, as the jargon goes, but a sizable number speak Native American languages, or Vietnamese, or Bosnian. Some are in bilingual programs, but most are in English as a Second Language programs, which teach English without using the student's native language. Nearly all of them score badly on standardized tests.

Something is clearly wrong with the way LEP students are taught and with the way their progress is measured, not just in Arizona, but nationwide. And no one knows what to do about it. Some school administrators don't even know the difference between the two modes of instruction.

Bilingual-ed supporters say that the current methods could be made more efficient with more government oversight and a healthy cash infusion to hire qualified teachers and buy resources. The opposition says that the bilingual educators are just trying to save their jobs and that the only way to reach the students is to get rid of bilingual education altogether and radically rearrange ESL instruction.

In 1998, Californians voted overwhelmingly to eliminate bilingual education in favor of a program that would "immerse" kids for one year in intensive English instruction. How well that approach is working so far depends on whether you talk to a bilingual or an antibilingual proponent. Whether the California initiative will withstand scrutiny under federal civil rights laws remains to be seen.

A similar initiative is taking shape in Tucson, led by Hispanics fed up with low test scores and poor school performance. They are gathering signatures to bring the issue to voters in 2000.

The state Department of Education and the Legislature are hurrying to cut the initiative off at the pass. A Republican bill passed the House of Representatives last week and a Senate bill needs to get to the floor this week if it is to be considered at all.

Meanwhile, low on anyone's radar screen, a class-action suit drones through federal court in Tucson, claiming that Arizona has never met its obligations to LEP students under state or federal law. If found in favor of the plaintiffs, it could blow the initiative and at least one of the state bills out of the sky.

Everyone worries over what language the children speak in school. If the men and women in the Legislature were to sit in any of those classes, they could chat to the children on a variety of subjects, and after listening to their relatively unaccented pronunciation, wonder what the problem is.

Those who do know what the problem is can't come to agreement.
"I don't think the issue is about how you talk," says Josue Gonzalez, director of the bilingual center at Arizona State University and former director of the federal Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs during Jimmy Carter's presidency. "I think the issue is whether the kids are being educated or not. That's my fight with [Lisa Graham] Keegan. She says the important thing is that they learn English as soon as possible. I said no; the important thing is that they get an education as good as everyone else's, and I don't care if they have an accent."

And Keegan fires back, "Where the hell are we going to find institutions that prepare teachers for that kind of job?"

She doesn't think the colleges are preparing them, or for that matter, even paying attention to how poorly LEP kids perform as compared to the population as a whole.

"If somebody stands up and says this program is succeeding," she says, "and I'm looking at the 26th percentile--if it were my child, she's not succeeding. I at least want somebody to say that's not good enough."

Add to the debate a healthy dose of outright xenophobia. Even while humping the international benefits of the NAFTA treaty, the State of Arizona was trying to keep its "English Only" law from being knocked down by the court. English-only and antibilingual education bills have been floated in Congress. A piece of sample legislation written by a think tank that is popular among Republicans even makes it illegal to be a college professor or a graduate-student teaching assistant if you have a hard-to-decipher foreign accent.

And most persistent, many Anglos cling to a nostalgic fantasy about how much more efficiently the melting pot worked in our grandfather's day.

"By the way, I'm the granddaughter of an immigrant," says Representative Laura Knaperek, who sponsored the bilingual education reform bill that just passed in the House of Representatives. "My grandfather came from Italy. My father cannot speak Italian; he can understand a little bit of it. We were never taught Italian, I'm sorry to say, but my grandfather felt strongly that when you came to this country you learned the ways here immediately to be successful."

And by the way, how far did grandfather go in school?
"My grandfather didn't go to school," Knaperek says.

Newspaper and magazine articles about bilingual education unleash torrents of letters that begin, "My grandfather came here from Germany/Poland/Italy/Russia, and he did great because he wanted to be an American, and he didn't have bilingual education."

But he might have. Public school bilingual education programs in the United States to educate German- or Czech-speaking American children date back to the 1830s. The word "kindergarten" comes from such schools, which proliferated in Ohio and New York and Texas and Pennsylvania. As World War I approached, the programs were swept away by xenophobia and anti-German sentiment.

Whether or not gramps had access to such schools--or subsequent schools in Polish or Portuguese or the like--the government wasn't going to make him go. He might have worked as a tailor or a janitor or a factory worker to provide for his family for 50 years without losing his accent or his foreigner diction.

Gramps might not have done as well as his offspring remember.
In the early 1900s, when the United States had its highest proportion of immigrants to natives, Jewish immigrant children from Europe dropped out of school in record numbers. In the old days, it was simple: If you didn't learn English, it was your own problem. With universal education, it became the school's problem. By the 1930s, only 11 percent of immigrant Italian children graduated from high school in New York City; as a result, the city schools created special-ed programs to cope with immigrant education needs.

"The reason we have bilingual education is because English-only programs were a disaster," says Leonard Basurto, director of bilingual education for the Tucson Unified School District.

The Bilingual Education Act, Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968, required that schools provide for economically disadvantaged, language-minority children, whether through federal funds or federally mandated funds raised in the district. Six years later, in a case known as Lau v. Nichols, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under the Civil Rights Act, school districts had to provide programs to help students overcome language barriers. That decision settled a class action suit filed by Chinese-speaking students in San Francisco.

How long does it take to learn a second language? It could take a year, or it could take a lifetime. If it were easy to do, then more people would do it. And though you don't actually need a language to think, once you learn one, it's impossible to think without it. Like some selfish computer operating system, it permeates every thought process and tangles itself into emotion and identity.

Language is not a list of words but the way that those words are arranged in sequence to express past and present, yes and no and an unlimited series of ideas and emotions. Infants start absorbing that syntax almost as soon as they are born.

There is a school of thought suggesting that the human brain presents a window of opportunity for language learning, an evolutionary throwback to an era when an individual who didn't learn a language might not survive to adulthood. Brains are expensive organs for a body to maintain; once the task is completed, the brain cells involved may disappear or go on to other more age-specific tasks--which may explain why older children and adults have such difficulty learning second languages.

Furthermore, the second language inevitably gets processed through the first, causing interferences and misassumptions in how the second should be strung together. The sounds of the first language may even settle into the mouth and tongue and face of its speaker. Many foreigners can spend 50 years in a country and never lose a thick accent and foreign way of putting words together.

Adolescence muddles the process even more. As teenagers struggle to separate psychologically from their parents, they choose the language of their peers over that of their parents. In earlier generations, this meant speaking English. And frequently it meant that when you reached adulthood, you suddenly and sadly realized that you'd lost your parents' language.

Today, an immigrant child's peers may also speak Spanish or Vietnamese or Bosnian, making the transition to English less critical.

According to the U.S. Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs, there are 2.8 million Limited English Proficient students in the United States, nearly twice as many as there were 10 years ago.

But neither the Lau court decision nor the Bilingual Education Act prescribed exactly how those children's education needs were to be met, and that has remained a matter of heated debate all over the country. And, often as not, the debaters have little or no idea what they're talking about. The legislation, the rhetoric, even the public school departments blur the terminology, lumping disparate practices under the very specific rubric of bilingual education.

There are three main approaches. The overriding goal of all of them is to find some way to make sure kids keep up in their subjects so that by the time they learn to function adequately in English they won't be woefully behind.

Transitional bilingual education seeks to move students quickly from the native language to English, as one professor put it, "banking on the disappearance within the individual of the home language."

Dual language programs start out primarily in the home language with minimal English, graduating to a 50-50 mix by middle school. The aim is to produce adults who are literate in both languages.

English as a Second Language was originally conceived as a next-best-thing to bilingual education, a way to combine students who speak different languages into one classroom. How this is done varies greatly, too. Some schools place ESL teachers or aides into mainstream classrooms, other schools pull the LEP students out of regular classrooms for concentrated English instruction--sometimes for as little as a half-hour a day.

How well any of these approaches works is difficult to measure. In Arizona's lower-income school districts, as many as 30 percent of the children move to other districts and can't be tracked. They cross district boundaries from middle school to high school and no one keeps record of their successes or failures.

What the schools do know, they often don't bother to report to the state Department of Education: This year's education department report on English Acquisition programs included high schools that listed students in primary-school categories. And the figures showing how long a student receives LEP services may be skewed. For example, a high school may report a student as having had one year of service, because that's all he received at that school--even if he'd spent his entire school career in bilingual programs in the lower schools.

At best, 12 percent of LEP students in Arizona ever get reclassified as English Proficient.

"Everything we know about achievement tests and reclassification and self-reports from schools says that 88 percent of these kids never come out of the programs," says Superintendent Keegan. "It would be fine that they stay in the program if they were all blowing the top off the Stanford, but they're not."

At best they score in the 39th percentile, and kids in bilingual programs generally score higher than kids in ESL programs, a fact born out by state statistics.

Language, however, is not the only factor in their low performances. Nationally and in Arizona, Asians score as well or better than whites on standardized tests, significantly better than Hispanics in general (whether English-dominant or LEP). African Americans, however, score as low as Hispanics, and Native Americans score even lower. Furthermore, national statistics show that children who are eligible for free school-lunch programs do not perform as well as children who are not. Clearly, cultural and socioeconomic influences weigh heavily on test results.

"For me, the biggest disconnect is that we still have a classist system," says John Wann, principal of Valley View school. "Poor kids lose on [standardized] tests."

Some Asians and Hispanics come from literate homes and societies, while others come from remote villages. Their parents may or may not be educated themselves, and that feeds into the mix.

"It is certainly easier to educate kids from a middle-class orientation," says ASU's Josue Gonzalez. "If you have a literacy tradition in the family, it's much easier to educate those kids than if they came from the top of a mountain somewhere in Nicaragua where they've been shooting at each other for the last 20 years."

Keegan does not want socioeconomics to become an excuse for poor education.
"What's upsetting to me is the persistent low level of achievement," she says. "The overlay that bothers me most is the patronizing low expectation that these kids can't make it and therefore we have to coddle them. This is not about money. The bottom line is achievement, whatever it is."

How to do that? Schools are woefully lacking in teachers and resources for LEP instruction. There are no guidelines from the Department of Education and no law that would authorize the DOE to lean on badly conceived programs, of which there are many.

"We have standards for everything," says Kent Scribner director of multicultural curriculum for the Roosevelt School District, "standards for math, for science; but we don't have standards for English language development where a kid comes to this country, and in six months he should know this, this and this. If teachers were given a road map, it would be that much more effective."

"The problem is not the language," says Jose Fonseca, a middle school math teacher from Tucson. "The problem is how to motivate students for learning anything."

The problem is not the language. The problem is that too many officials can't get beyond the language.

"I'm just frustrated with how badly it works for our kids, and more than that, our inability to discuss it," says Keegan. "We can't get past this stuff."

The stuff of a statewide bilingual education policy is working its way through both houses of the Legislature. The approach is disparately bipartisan.

The Senate bill, backed by Democrats, seeks to strengthen the bilingual/ESL education system. The House bill, a Republican effort, mostly seeks to limit the state funds that can be spent on bilingual and ESL programs, which isn't very much anyway.

According to the Department of Education, last year, Arizona schools spent $458 million on bilingual ed and ESL programs. Only 3 percent--or about $15 million--of that money came from state funds. The feds kicked in another $100 million, but the lion's share came out of district pockets, $240 million. That means that rich districts can afford better programs than poor districts. And guess which districts have the bulk of the LEP students?

Senator Joe Eddie Lopez spent his school years with teachers trying "to impress on me almost the sin of speaking Spanish."

"The kids in bilingual programs, as bad as they may be, are doing better than kids who are not," he says.

The bill he wrote, which still has to fight its way out of the Senate, seeks to reform rather than eliminate bilingual education. He penciled in an escape clause for parents who want their kids out of such programs. He insisted that the Department of Education set standards and then enforce them to make sure that programs were meeting some sort of goals. Among the standards would be redefined exit criteria. The standards would establish a point at which teachers would realize that a student was not being reached, and subsequently be required to take more heroic measures to provide extra help. He requested funds to do so. And he wanted LEP students to be exempt from AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Sandards) testing, which all students are supposed to pass before graduating high school.

Furthermore, as written, Lopez's legislation would have provided tuition incentives so that more university students would commit to being bilingual or ESL teachers.

The bill was gutted in the Senate's Education Committee. Lopez reinstalled much of its content in the Appropriations Committee, but the AIMS exemption, the teacher incentives and the money to carry out programs were all taken away.

Laura Knaperek's House bill has already passed the House and is on its way to the Senate. Knaperek lifted long sections of Lopez's bill, and installed clauses assuring parental consent for participation in bilingual or ESL programs, a key Republican concern nationwide. But the key to Knaperek's proposal is to set time limits on programs; originally, she wanted ESL or bilingual services to be terminated after three years for each student. Ultimately, she amended the bill to cut off funding after three years, which as one lobbyist said, "would allow the student to continue in the program on the district dime."

Knaperek's bill exempts "indigenous" Native American languages from the three-year constraint so as not to conflict with other existing laws. Of that clause, House Minority Leader Robert McLendon asked in committee, "How far back do you have to go to be indigenous?"

Back to statehood, responded Knaperek's research assistant.
McLendon pointed out that there might have been a few Spanish speakers living in Arizona before it became a state. He drawled toward his punch line.

"So would you consider Spanish to be indigenous?" he asked.
How much research did Knaperek leave to her assistant and how much did she do herself?

"It's not really an issue in my district," Knaperek tells New Times. "Most of the programs are ESL programs, and [in] most of the adult programs which I have visited there are people from all over. So you've got four, five, six different languages in a classroom. I sat through about an hour of it, and that's about all I could take."

Why?
"It's just tedious. It was immersion. So if we're teaching immersion for adults, why aren't we teaching immersion for kids?"

Perhaps because it's tedious--among other reasons.
And how did Knaperek arrive at the three-year limit for services?
"It was basically from anecdotal stories I was hearing in the community."

Language-learning experts say it can take as long as seven years for a child to become proficient in a second language. The scant 12 percent of Arizona students who manage to reclassify as "English Proficient" do so in about four and a half years; that is a length of time more comfortable for Lisa Keegan.

"After the feds came up with the three years and President Clinton said three years was enough, it just verified my gut reaction to three years," Knaperek continues. "I have to tell you, I pulled three years out of the air originally, but after I started to do more work on it, three years seems very reasonable. It seems a magic number. And with an exclusion in there for a waiver, three years does not bother me at all."

During a hearing on the bill in the House Education Committee, Representative Tom Horne boldly stated, "I tell you, if I were to move to Mexico City, my kids would be speaking Spanish within one year, guaranteed."

How hard could it be?

In a Tucson classroom, fourth- and fifth-grade students stand to tell a stranger--in unaccented English--why they feel they need bilingual education. Their speeches may have been rehearsed, but coming from their earnest little faces they're moving nonetheless.

"It would be scary if bilingual education wasn't there, because I wouldn't be able to understand the teacher, and I wouldn't know what to do, and I would have problems," says one little boy.

Another boy wonders if he'd still be able to talk to his grandparents and aunts and uncles who only speak Spanish. A girl feels caught between languages, not always knowing the Spanish words or the English words for a situation.

The corker: "When we were reading the Constitution," says a second girl, "you know, 'We the People,' I would read it but not understand it because it was too hard. I'm still learning to read harder levels in English, but I don't know it all yet."

They seem so bright it's hard to understand how last year fourth- and fifth-graders in this school only scored in the 22nd and 18th percentiles, respectively, in language on the Stanford Achievement Tests. The state average was in the 47th and 42nd percentiles.

Their teacher, Irene Escarcega, has the wise and patient face of a grandmother. Her family lived south of Douglas, Arizona, when it was still a part of Mexico. She learned her English the old way, by the sink-or-swim method--and the problem with sink-or-swim is that sometimes only those who manage to swim live to tell the tale.

"Do you think I sank or swam?" she asks. "I drowned."
Her mother sent her off to her first day of school with a warning to behave nicely.

"The first time I raised my hand with my nice comportamiento and said Quiero ir al bano, me pegó con la regla," the teacher hit her with a ruler.

When she raised her hand and asked to get a drink of water, the same happened.

"The teacher didn't speak Spanish; we didn't speak English," she continues. "We were all looking at each other. We weren't dumb. After a while we realized, hey, you open your mouth, you're going to get hit."

Escarcega's mother made her stay in school until she graduated from high school. She went to beauty school instead of college, got married, moved to Tucson and had children of her own. When her children went to school, she volunteered as a teacher's aide so that she could be in their classrooms and make damn sure that they didn't get hit.

The school principal thought she was a natural teacher and convinced her to go back to school.

She starts to cry while telling the tale.
"Bilingual education makes me touchy," she says. "I know what I went through, and I know what it can be, and I don't want anyone to go through that again. Why would you take that away? Why are you limiting kids?"

But other segments of the Hispanic population think that bilingual education is limiting kids.

Hector Ayala and Maria Mendoza are activists in Tucson who are campaigning for English for the Children, an offshoot of last year's California campaign that took bilingual education out of schools there.

Both are native speakers of Spanish. Mendoza is from New Mexico and learned English in public schools there. Ayala was born in Mexico but attended schools in Nogales. He teaches high school English in Tucson public schools, where he copes with the weak academic skills of kids who were products of bilingual feeder schools.

Mendoza, the American, speaks English with a heavy accent; Ayala, the Mexican, with just a faint lilt. When they meet, they address each other in Spanish. And yet these two are advocating taking Spanish out of Arizona schools.

"I've heard all their stories," Ayala says of their door-to-door canvassing collecting signatures to place the initiative on the ballot next year--parents complaining when homework comes home in Spanish, students kept in programs simply because they have Hispanic surnames.

They don't know how many signatures they have gathered so far. And how much support they have among Hispanics as a whole is hard to gauge.

"There is no backlash in our community," says former state senator Alfredo Gutierrez. "It's a minor percentage of the folks. This is not an issue that is growing out of the Hispanic community. This is an issue that is being imposed by outsiders for purposes of their own agenda, and it has nothing to do with education."

"My feeling is they're dead wrong," echoes Al Flores, the Phoenix attorney who won a federal desegregation suit against Phoenix Union High School District. "Let's face it: we border on a country that speaks Spanish."

Ayala, on the other hand, feels that learning English is not a cultural threat.

"They feel there's an enormous cultural issue attached to that, and I don't know why people can't seem to separate the two issues, the culture issue and the learning of English issue. They feel it's an oppression of the Mexicans. That has very little to do with what we are doing."

"Do you think you have to teach them how to be Mexicans?" Mendoza adds.
California millionaire Ron Unz made a crusade of his California referendum, bankrolling it with his own money. He did not go looking for Arizonans to carry on the campaign, Mendoza and Ayala insist. They contacted him for advice. To date, Unz has only provided them with office equipment and space on his Web site, they say.

What they want instead of bilingual education or extended ESL is a one-year, sheltered immersion program, which essentially means taking the newcomers and segregating them in intensive language class for one year and then letting them sink or swim from there.

"To imagine that a child cannot be taught entirely in English because he hasn't achieved a certain level of academic English is silly," Ayala says. "They don't develop academic English in a vacuum, they develop it by doing academics in English. And what is the level of academics they were doing in first and second grade anyway?"

The bilingual educators, Ayala and Mendoza contend, have built themselves an empire that they guard jealously, keeping jobs despite their inability to educate bilingual children. In fact, the bilingual director of Tucson schools did not want Ayala to be photographed in his classroom but had no objections to photographing bilingual teachers in theirs.

If English for the Children's initiative hit Arizona polling places tomorrow, it would probably win as resoundingly as it did in California. But those voting for it would be strange bedfellows: antibilingual Hispanics, and political moderates frustrated with public education in general who would vote alongside right-wing racists and xenophobes. Hispanics as a group don't vote in large numbers, and many cannot because they are not citizens. In other words, the audience and advocates for bilingual education may not even go to the polls.

"A lot of my colleagues think it's very politically sound, says Lisa Keegan, "that it's a smart idea. Is it a good idea? Noooooo!"

Keegan says that Ron Unz frequently sends her faxes to convince her of his way of thinking.

"He keeps saying, 'Lisa, you'll get re-elected,' and I say, 'Ron, I don't care.'"

In federal court in Tucson, in Judge Alfredo Marquez's courtroom, there is a wild card that may trump English for the Children and Representative Knaperek's bill.

In 1992, an attorney named Bill Morris filed a class action suit on behalf of children in the Nogales Unified School District, charging that the state had not met its state or federal obligation to see that Spanish-speaking children were given the instruction they were entitled to, therefore violating their civil rights.

There were not enough programs, not enough teachers, not enough resources. And in 1993, the federal Office of Civil Rights agreed. That agency's investigation "concluded that the District discriminates against national-origin minority children on the basis of their limited English proficiency by not providing them services necessary for them to participate meaningfully in the District's educational program . . ."

Morris doesn't know how many LEP students are in a bona fide program that can satisfy state and federal law. "I can't put an exact percentage on it, but I'm satisfied that it's substantially less than 50 percent."

After years of back and forth with the state, Morris filed three motions for summary judgment nearly a year ago. Two cover the state's compliance with the Supreme Court's Lau decision; the third seeks to exempt LEP students from the AIMS test. Marquez could issue a decision any day.

If he rules in favor of the plaintiffs, it would negate the English for the Children initiative--as in a game of paper-scissors-rock, federal court ruling takes state initiative, Morris believes.

"That argument is being presented to the California courts right now," he says.

And federal court ruling takes state law as well. Joe Eddie Lopez consulted with Morris while crafting his bill to make sure it would withstand a possible federal challenge. Knaperek's bill would not, Morris insists.

"It's not a question of whether bilingual education is good or bad in the abstract," Morris says, "It's 'Did your children receive any instruction due him or her or them under federal law?' As long as the answer is no, because the state never made it possible, this becomes a truly sterile debate."

In essence, the suit says to the state of Arizona: How would you know whether bilingual education works? You have never done it.

Lisa Keegan wouldn't comment on the pending case.

Judges and legislators can deal in abstracts; teachers face classrooms.
"Our district has 25 different languages," says Michael Rivera, principal at Andalucia Middle School on the west side of Phoenix.

Fifty percent of the students at Rivera's school are LEP, as are 65 percent of the students at the adjoining primary school. Spanish is the predominant language of the LEP students, followed by Vietnamese, Bosnian and Lao.

With so many different groups, bilingual education is not an option. The Alhambra School District, which Andalucia belongs to, has a policy of starting its students a year early in preschool, followed by all-day kindergarten, so that when the kids reach first grade, they've already had two years of English instruction.

Then, from first grade on, they are mainstreamed, but not left to sink or swim. Teachers are paid extra if they have an ESL endorsement, so there is always an ESL teacher leading the class or an ESL teacher that travels from class to class to help other teachers pattern their lessons in such a way as to reach the LEP students.

One morning in a fifth-grade class, for example, a math teacher and an ESL teacher team up to teach the concept of tenths and hundredths. But it's not done in any way that will single out the LEP students, although the ESL teacher constantly monitors their progress.

"What does cien mean in Spanish?" the ESL teacher asks. All of these students started to study Spanish as a foreign language in first grade, so this is not a question aimed only at Mexican kids.

There is nothing to tell the uninformed that ESL is spoken here.
Likewise, next door in a first-grade class, students are practicing spelling words, and the only hint that they are Spanish dominant is as subtle as saying "ay" for letter E and "ee" for letter I, as they are pronounced in Spanish.

The children's progress is evaluated every eight weeks, but English learning is ongoing.

It's an approach that the antibilingual factions and even the xenophobes might approve. But how could anyone tell when one student's three-year window ended?

One first-grader with thick glasses sits at a magnifying projector that allows her to read and follow along with class papers. Just as her pencil follows the words onscreen, it's clear that she is following the lesson.

In addition to her vision impairment, she is also what is known as a selective mute. She speaks Spanish at home, but she won't speak at all at school, a condition not uncommon in ESL classrooms. Only recently she has made a breakthrough by starting to whisper in class.

Jackie Doerr, the school principal, nudges a visitor's elbow.
"You see her mouth moving. It's so exciting," Doerr says.
Andalucia School bends over backward to reach families. It provides free breakfast for students, followed by a homework assistance program for those kids who don't have someone at home who can help them in English. It offers ESL class for the parents, coffee klatches for the moms, a pediatrician who comes to school once a week. The staff and administration scrounge for grant monies to pay for it all.

"Philosophy is great," Doerr says. "We got to do that in college. We could sit here and talk politics, but we still come here every day. We still face the kids every day, and we face mom and dad every day. This is reality.

"We're out to save every little kid."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: mkiefer@newtimes.com

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