Nada Chance

Reforming Arizona's bilingual education system won't be as easy as voters may think

 Editor'snote: Because the family portrayed in this story is in this country illegally, New Times is using only the first names of family members.

Martín sits on the dingy brown sofa sectional with his back hunched, gazing at the spiral notebook resting on his lap. He's filling it with mathematical equations.

His favorite subject is algebra. The Carl Hayden Community High School senior envisions a future in college, where his numerical skills will earn him dual degrees in engineering and architecture.

Gisela might be considered a bilingual education success story. After two years, she is reading and speaking English much better than her brothers.
Leah Fasten
Gisela might be considered a bilingual education success story. After two years, she is reading and speaking English much better than her brothers.

A handful of smart and dedicated high school students might consider this an attainable dream. Why shouldn't Martín? He pulls A's and B's and seems a likely candidate for scholarships.

Already, recruitment letters from Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University are filling his mailbox.

"The Minority Student Recruitment Unit of the University of Arizona . . . would like to recognize you for your outstanding academic performance," says one letter from the admissions staff in Tucson. But what the universities don't know is that 17-year-old Martín has a heartbreaking secret.He's an illegal immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico. And he can barely speak English, certainly not well enough to undertake engineering studies at an American university.

A language barrier is only part of his problem. For Martín, there will be no financial aid or scholarships, even though his father supports a family of five on a $6-an-hour job.

Unless he can find thousands of dollars and a family to sponsor him, Martín will not be able to go to college, either as an undocumented immigrant in Arizona or if he were to return to Mexico. He is caught in a web of international politics and indescribable poverty that will surely snag even an exceptional student like Martín. The education he is receiving through Phoenix public schools will probably lead him only a few blocks from the trailer park that is his home to the corner where Mexican men gather every morning and wait for work as day laborers.

For two years, Martín has struggled through a bilingual education program at Carl Hayden High, a program that's meant to teach him English.

In class, however, only his teachers speak English, to explain books, materials and assignments written in English. Some teachers teach in Spanish. In either case, students respond mainly in Spanish, and outside the classroom, they speak mostly Spanish with siblings, parents and friends.

Martín's teachers say he's a good, quiet kid with exam scores good enough to attract colleges. He does especially well in math, which is taught primarily in Spanish.

Although Martín reads and writes English fairly well, he struggles with English conversation. He says he prefers to avoid English dialogue because he's worried he'll say something wrong. As long as he can finish his assignments in English, and teachers allow him to respond in Spanish, there is little need for him to practice his English.

But if Arizona voters pass the controversial Proposition 203 next week, he won't have that choice.

The measure would eliminate much of the 30-year-old bilingual education system that, opponents of the program say, has kept kids like Martín from reaching their potential. They call bilingual education a form of segregation and an outdated experiment.

Proposition 203 would require that most kids be placed in regular English-only classes after one year of intensive English lessons in "immersion" classes. Now, more than 130,000 kids a year are enrolled in bilingual classes -- math, history, science, for instance -- that are taught in Spanish as well as English.

Since California voters passed a similar proposition in 1998, "limited English proficient" students have seen gains in their test scores across a spectrum of subjects. However, immersion is in its infancy, and its future, like Martín's, is obscure.

And the education of tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking kids who attend Arizona schools is a much more complicated prospect than any ballot initiative is going to resolve. Like Martín and his family, many students are illegal immigrants. Increasing numbers are illiterate even in their native language. Many are older teenagers who simply don't have time to learn English and other subjects before they graduate -- or drop out.

Martín and his sister, Gisela, 14, are older students in the bilingual system. Younger brother Julio, 10, may be bi-illiterate -- he struggles to write, speak and read in both Spanish and English -- and is not benefiting from bilingual education.

Many parents with kids in bilingual classrooms believe immersion is an outrage. It takes away educational choices and creates an uncomfortable, unproductive learning environment, they say.

Martín's parents, Martín Sr. and Maria, don't speak English. When they imagine what it would be like to go to school in an all-English environment, they say they would be confused and would fear insensitive teachers.

But immersion proponents say parents should instead fear a bilingual education system that has been a detriment to their children's educational growth.

Ron Unz is the California millionaire funding Proposition 203. He also funded California's Proposition 227 in 1998.

In California, 95 percent of kids in bilingual ed were not moving into mainstream classrooms. "It turns out Arizona had a 97 percent failure rate [in grades K-6]," Unz says.

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