Cara Bennett (left) and Ana Contreras
Cara Bennett (left) and Ana Contreras
Jamie Peachey

Teaching Spanish to White Kids Is All the Rage -- Even in Mexican-Bashing Arizona

You'd better not dare speak a word of English in Ana Contreras' kindergarten classroom.

On a warm day in late October, students line up outside the door. MacBook in hand, Contreras greets her charges as they enter: "Hola, señor! Hola, señora!"

Everybody giggles as the dozen-plus kids take their places on the carpet in front of the calendar — all wrinkled khakis, damp ponytails, and white knee socks, eyes on the teacher. Contreras is the kind of kindergarten teacher little boys and girls remember forever: super-kind and just as pretty, with twinkly brown eyes and a big purple flower tucked in her shiny black hair. She takes attendance on the computer.


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"Blake, Kimberly — aquí, aquí. Arriba!"

Everyone stretches. It smells like kindergarten in here — a mixture of pee, crayons, and hand-sanitizer. And it looks like kindergarten, too. But all in Spanish. On every wall, every white board, Spanish vocabulary words, aphorisms, cultural references. A bulletin board announces it's Octubre with pictures and words: lechuza (owl), gato (cat), araña (spider), and, of course, jackolanter.

After a discussion about keeping one's hands to oneself, it's calendar time. The days are counted down in Spanish.

The classroom phone rings, and Contreras answers in Spanish. She pauses for a moment, smiles, then gently reminds the front office that she's not to speak English in front of the children.

The confusion is understandable. Typically, in Arizona, teachers are forbidden from speaking Spanish in the classroom — not English.

But this is not a hippy-dippy public school in some progressive, liberal state. It's not an expensive private school in a rich suburb. It's not in Mexico. It's a middle-class public school in Central Phoenix, and the only reason Ana Contreras is allowed to speak in her oft-maligned native tongue is because when school started six weeks earlier, none of these kids spoke a word of Spanish. Today, they are nodding, smiling, and testing their accents. Making their parents proud.

In Arizona, folks may not much like living in a border state, but more and more, there's talk that our kids need to be a part of the global society. Our English-speaking kids, anyway. Turns out, it's relatively inexpensive and easy to teach Spanish to kindergartners. And it builds brainpower.

It also builds student enrollment.

If Squaw Peak Traditional Academy is any indication, Spanish immersion just might be the thing that saves Arizona's public schools.

It began one Saturday morning in the spring of 2010. Another ballet mom asked whether I thought it would be okay if she stuck a flier on the bulletin board at the studio where our kids take dance. I shrugged. Sure, what's it for?

I didn't know this mom, Amy McSheffrey, very well, but I liked her. She seemed smart. Still, I thought she was crazy when she told me she was helping recruit for a Spanish-immersion program at her kids' elementary school, Squaw Peak.

Good luck with that, I thought, smiling politely, helping her find a thumbtack.

First off, Squaw Peak didn't have such a great reputation, though it's in a great location — just six blocks west of La Grande Orange and Postino, the gourmet grocery and wine bar that have managed to do what no one in Phoenix has ever done: create a sense of community. LGO is in a pocket just west of Arcadia, south of Paradise Valley, and east of the Biltmore, a sort of no-man's land that's suddenly become the place to buy a ranch-style fixer-upper (or even a tear-down), so you can ride bikes with the kids to get breakfast on Saturday mornings and meet your girlfriends for sangria on a Tuesday night.

But from everything I knew, the folks in that neighborhood were sending their kids to Hopi Elementary in the Scottsdale School District, to the Madison public schools in North Central Phoenix, to Catholic schools, to charters. Not to Squaw Peak. The McSheffreys were the only ones I knew at Squaw Peak, where enrollment had declined so sharply, I'd heard, that they were down to one class per grade.

And Spanish immersion? Here? I had friends who'd put their kids in intensive Spanish classes at school, but that was in northern California. Jan Brewer had just signed Senate Bill 1070. Multiculturalism was hardly in vogue in Arizona in 2010.

So imagine my surprise when Amy McSheffrey messaged me on Facebook a few months later. School was about to start, and the immersion program was a go. In fact, Squaw Peak had enjoyed such great response that it'd added another first-grade class and two kindergarten sections. People were pulling their kids out of the fancy schools to attend.

Documentary filmmakers are tripping all over themselves to get into charter schools and tell those success stories; you can fill your Netflix queue with movies about admission lotteries and college-level math classes.

It's a worthy topic, for sure. Here in Arizona, we know the story well: Enrollment in charter schools has gone from almost 4 percent of the public school population for the 1999-2000 school year to close to 10 percent for 2008-09. Public schools are bleeding kids. But the truth is that what's been quietly happening with Spanish-immersion programs in Arizona over the past several years is just as compelling — and far more surprising. No one's telling the stories of little kids learning Spanish in the most xenophobic state in the nation.

A decade ago, Arizona voters effectively drove Spanish out of public schools, delivering an anti-immigrant message with "English Only" Proposition 203 that's only grown stronger over the years with employer sanctions and SB 1070. Last month, a law went into effect allowing private fundraising to finish building that fence along the Arizona/Mexico border. For more than a year, a debate has raged in Tucson over how (if at all) to teach Mexican kids living in Arizona about their heritage.

Efforts to teach English to Spanish speakers are tanking (not that anyone will admit that much has ever worked, in that regard). Arizona now requires Spanish speakers to take four hours a day in English instruction, to the exclusion of other academics. Instead of the one year expected to get kids proficient in English and into regular classrooms, it's taking more like three or four years. But the segregation continues, and so does the hysteria. Today, teachers with accents are required to take classes to Americanize their voices before they can teach English to Spanish speakers.

Neither Tom Horne nor his successor, current state schools Superintendent John Huppenthal, have bothered to count how many Arizona kids are enrolled in Spanish-immersion programs, but if Squaw Peak is any indication, more and more families are clamoring for their English-speaking kids to learn Spanish. Too bad they have to do it in classrooms full of white kids; it would be even better if the kids could learn from one another. Still, what's going on is pretty remarkable — and some see it as a sign of healing.

"It counters every other major trend that seems to be occurring," says James Garcia, a Phoenix-based playwright and media consultant who frequently writes about Latino issues.

"Those parents," he adds, "are at least 10 to 20 years ahead of the curve."

Or maybe it's a lot simpler than that.

"We're not making a political statement here," says Renee Shamblin, the Squaw Peak mom who pushed to get the Spanish-immersion program started at her kids' school, after learning her son was 67th on a waiting list for a similar program in Scottsdale.

"It's good for their brains."

Squaw Peak Elementary School long enjoyed a reputation as the best school in a not-very-good district. Creighton cuts south through the center of Phoenix, all the way down to Fillmore Street; Squaw Peak is its northernmost school. In the early 1980s, old-timers recall, the little school was bursting at the seams with close to 1,200 students. Every classroom was full, and portables were set up outside.

First a rainbow of immigrants — Laotian, Chinese, Tonganese — and then an increasing number of Latinos packed in, bused from poorer parts of the district as the mostly white kids in the Squaw Peak neighborhood grew up and moved out. English textbooks were traded for bilingual versions, and at one point, administrators were flying Spanish-speaking teachers in from all over the country (and beyond) to interview for jobs. There were teachers from Argentina and Ecuador.

Back then, Spanish-immersion classes were called "dual immersion," and the Spanish-speaking kids took them, too. In the morning, the kids would face their chairs north and the teacher would speak in English; after lunch, they would stand up, turn the chairs south, and the teacher would speak in Spanish.

Virginia Goll taught kindergarten at Squaw Peak for more than 25 years. She recalls the dual-immersion program from the late 1990s. She loved it; the kids learned from one another.

In November 2000, Arizona voters approved Proposition 203, the "English Only" law. And pretty much everything at Squaw Peak came to a halt.

Teachers were pretty much prohibited from speaking Spanish to their students, much less teaching a kid in his or her native language. Bilingual interaction among students all but ended.

"We couldn't even have Spanish materials in the classroom," Goll recalls. She was allowed to keep one set of Spanish books, but students were not allowed to read them in the classroom; she could let them borrow the books only to read at home.

"It got real weird," she says.

Eventually, enrollment declined all over the Creighton district; busing stopped, boundaries were redrawn. Test scores continued to decline at Squaw Peak, and entire wings of the school sat empty.

At the same time, the neighborhood around Squaw Peak was on the rise, with increasing real estate prices pushing potential homebuyers west from Arcadia and south from Paradise Valley to the sweet little enclave near La Grande Orange — but almost no one wanted to send their children to the neighborhood school. There was talk about closing Squaw Peak and selling the property.

And then came the idea to make Squaw Peak a traditional academy, with new curriculum and more emphasis on the three Rs. The principal at the time literally walked the neighborhood, recruiting students. A few families bought it, but as Amy McSheffrey's daughter and son were preparing for first and fourth grade, respectively, most grades were down to just one class.

The McSheffreys live in a comfortable, remodeled home with a red kitchen, a sprawling green lawn out back, and multiple white French doors, just a couple blocks from Squaw Peak. Amy's brother teaches elsewhere in the district, so when it came time to send Harry to kindergarten, she considered Hopi or Christ Lutheran but ultimately decided on her home school, Squaw Peak, despite its reputation, figuring they'd take it year by year.

"We were in the minority," she says delicately, a challenge for a little boy with a shock of white-blond hair. "I got over that, and, gosh, he was accepted."

They loved the school. When the busing stopped and enrollment dipped from 700 to under 300, she got worried. So when another parent started talking about a Spanish-immersion program, McSheffrey was all ears.

Today, she and Renee Shamblin are co-presidents of the PTA. And co-marketers of Squaw Peak's Spanish-immersion program.

Shamblin and her husband moved to the Squaw Peak neighborhood in 1998, long before they had kids. When they did, she realized that almost no one sent their children to Squaw Peak. She sent her son to Villa Montessori for preschool but wanted something more structured for kindergarten and beyond, so she started touring schools and fell in love with Pueblo's Spanish-immersion program.

"I was just blown away," she says. Also blown away by the fact that although there was still a year and a half to go before her son would start kindergarten, he was already 67th on the waiting list.

Spanish-immersion programs are relatively rare in the Valley, and the good ones fill up fast. When Shamblin started doing her homework and heard what had happened in Cave Creek, she was even more determined to get a program started at Squaw Peak. Jana Miller was principal of Desert Willow Elementary in Cave Creek in 2002, when her school began the first "one-way immersion" program in the state. She recalls that parents would drive their kids from the west side of Phoenix all the way to Cave Creek to take part in the program.

Miller's husband now runs a similar program in Peoria. There's another at Pueblo in Scottsdale, and a few others around town. No one keeps track of all of them; the state Department of Education views Spanish immersion as "school enrichment" and, as such, doesn't follow the programs' progress.

There are programs that start and fail, as with most everything, but there are individual school districts telling their success stories. Last year, Osborn School District in Phoenix received an A-plus Award from the Arizona Educational Foundation for its Spanish-immersion program. The logistics are a bit different from Cave Creek's model, but the idea is the same: teach English speakers Spanish.

And the statistics are pretty impressive. Osborn's program began in 1998 and now includes English/Spanish instruction in kindergarten through sixth grade at three Osborn schools. In 2009, students in the Spanish program outscored peers in the district by 20 percent in reading and math on the AIMS test.

Jana Miller is now associate superintendent for teaching and learning in Cave Creek. This year, that first class of kindergartners at Desert Willow will start high school, she says, adding that these kids have tested out of two years of high school Spanish. Not bad.

"They just think in that language," Miller says.

And this year, Cave Creek is starting a world language program in grades K through 12, including Spanish, French, Chinese, and Japanese.

One benefit, Miller says, is that Spanish immersion is cost-neutral, compared with other enrichment programs like, say, music instruction, which involves purchasing instruments. You have to hire teachers to do basic instruction anyway, she says. Just hire some who can teach in Spanish.

Shamblin sent a letter to Creighton and heard back a week later from an interested school board member. That started a year's worth of meetings and ultimately resulted in a program — just in time for the Shamblins' son Blake's kindergarten year.

At first, she admits, Blake was frustrated that he couldn't understand Ms. Contreras. By the end of the year, his accent was better than his mother's — and she's trying to figure out how to catch up with him. Amy McSheffrey's daughter Gillian just finished first grade. McSheffrey's taking Spanish classes herself.

Shamblin is quick to point out that, for her, this endeavor is all about brain development. For McSheffrey, it's more than that. She laments that her kids are no longer in the minority at school — far from it, in fact — and she hopes this chance Gillian is getting to learn about another culture will broaden horizons for the future. (Harry, who was too old for it, was jealous of his little sister's opportunity.

"If you can speak to each other, if you can communicate with each other, that breaks down barriers," she says. "It frustrates me when people are, like, 'Why don't they learn our language?' Well, have you tried? It's not easy. Especially as an adult."

It's the day before Christmas break, and there's a buzz in the air. Outside, it's threatening to rain. You can see clouds forming through the narrow windows that line the top of the wall in Ana Contreras' classroom. The kids already have made luminara today, and now the lights are off. They are going to watch the movie The Polar Express. In Spanish.

A few kids groan. But they settle down, enjoying the film in spite of themselves, eventually taking pleasure in recognizing Spanish words here and there. Contreras and her co-teacher, Cara Bennett, sneak to the back of the classroom for a quick chat about how the first half of the year has gone.

"El Papa Noel is Santa Claus?" Bennett asks, motioning to the screen.

"," Contreras replies. Both women speak fluent Spanish, though in the classroom, Bennett focuses on reading, writing, and social studies in English, while Contreras tackles math and science in Spanish.

One advantage of this program (for this year, anyway) has been class size. Contreras and Bennett share a group of about 24 kids, a far smaller ratio than you'd typically see in a kindergarten class in most public schools. While Spanish immersion at Squaw Peak has been relatively popular, there's still constant worry about enrollment during this first year. For a while, it seemed that new kids joined them all the time; that seems to have stopped. Just last week, a kid moved out of town. Another left for Hopi Elementary in Scottsdale.

Both teachers clearly are devoted to their cause. They make a striking pair — Bennett as fair as Contreras is dark, both sweet-tempered but no-nonsense, hardworking young teachers. Both came from English-immersion programs at a poor school in the southern part of the district.

Both prefer it here.

"All of our kids believe in Santa Claus," Contreras says, wistful. That wasn't the case at Gateway Elementary.

"Why not?" I ask naively.

Because those kids don't always get Christmas presents.

Here, the kids actually brush their teeth before they come to school. Here, the teachers don't have to spend all day teaching life skills.

Bennett gets excited, hunched in the back of the dark classroom on a tiny plastic chair, talking about how she had to go to the teaching-supply store to buy a second-grade vocabulary book for her kindergartners.

Here, they can teach.

Outside, it's raining in earnest now. On NPR, Neal Conan is talking about how the DREAM Act — proposed federal legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants with academic promise to stay in the United States to go to college and possibly beyond — will never pass this year.

By the end of March, green leaves are popping on the trees outside Ana Contreras' classroom, and in math, the kids are doing word problems in Spanish. Sort of. They sit on the carpet as Contreras carefully explains the problem, and together they prepare the problem on the dry erase board: 42 plus 34.

"Seventy-six!" a boy calls out — in English.

Contreras smiles patiently, and together they figure out how to say 76 in Spanish. Next, directed in Spanish, a shaggy blond boy in tan cords (fly down) hands out dry erase markers. A girl follows with a Kleenex for each child, another with dry erase boards.

"Gracias! Gracias!" the kids say, and settle in to do their work independently.

With little exception, Contreras does all the Spanish-speaking in the classroom. The kids take their time, absorbing it. No one expects them to finish kindergarten fluent in two languages.

And yet that's pretty much what the state expects from non-English speakers in Arizona public schools.

The laws, regulations, and court rulings governing how we teach English Language Learners in this state have gotten impossibly complicated. But here are some basics: Much of the current debate began more than a decade ago with a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Nogales School District against the state of Arizona. The argument was (and is) that kids who did not speak English fluently were getting discriminated against under a federal law called the Equal Education Opportunity Act, which requires that ELLs get equal treatment.

That case has gone all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and back down again. Early on, Arizona voters tossed a wrench into the deal in the form of the "English Only" law, which requires, with few exceptions, that ELLs be taught in English, not in their native language.

This pretty much did away with dual-immersion classes such as the ones Squaw Peak used to offer (particularly in primary grades), which doesn't make sense to a lot of experts in the field, particularly given how ELLs are taught currently — separated from English-speaking peers for four hours a day, sometimes for years, 'til they learn English.

"They basically segregate the kids who don't speak English . . . when, in fact, we should be doing the opposite," says Tim Hogan, a lawyer for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest who represents the plaintiffs in this case.

"Then we have these kids learning from each other," he says. "It's a resource, not a burden . . . Who wouldn't say that, if you could divorce yourself from our immigration hysteria?"

But that is not an option, thanks to Prop 203. And even without the voter-approved initiative, it's unlikely the Arizona Legislature would allow native-language instruction. In 2006, the Legislature passed the four-hour rule, which was implemented in the 2008-9 school year.

The truth is that it's almost impossible to adequately measure the quantitative results of Arizona's program thus far, as the rules are revised all the time. The qualifications to enter the ELL program change, as do the tests to qualify you to get out. And not all schools are implementing the program; that may change now, as a new law that will withhold funding for non-participating schools went into effect this summer.

But there's enough information out there to fuel a rigorous debate.

As Hogan explains, students in the four-hour, English-only program receive only two hours of instruction in topics such as math, and they often skip science and social studies entirely. When this happens in the high school years, kids can wind up missing credits they need to graduate. At any grade level, Hogan observes, the missing curriculum never is given — the kids simply miss it.

He cites a study showing that in Tucson Unified School District, there was almost no difference between the success rate of ELL kids who took part in the English-only training and those whose parents chose to keep them out of the program entirely and put them in mainstream classrooms.

And researchers at UCLA's Civil Rights Project concluded last year that they had enough data to conclude that Arizona's ELL programs are failing. The "Arizona Educational Equity Project" released a series of nine reports questioning everything from assessment tools to how the programs are affecting the way students feel about themselves. From a spring 2010 survey of 880 participating teachers:

"Overall findings show that most of these Arizona teachers have a great deal of faith in their ELL students' ability to achieve at a grade level, but . . . there is deep and overwhelming concern about the segregation they are experiencing as a result of this instructional model; 85 percent believe this separation from English-speaking peers is harmful to their learning. Most also believe that the majority of their ELL students are not meeting grade-level standards and more than half of teachers also note that their ELL students are stereotyped as slow learners by other students and that the four-hour block program is harmful to their self-esteem."

Here at home, an academic researcher is horrified by the state's methods for teaching ELL.

"Arizona has the worst idea about how to address the needs of English language learners," says Kellie Rolstad, an associate professor of applied linguistics in Arizona State University's English department.

She says of the "English Only" law, "203 was bad. But when the four-hour block was introduced, that was the worst . . . You don't learn a language by being forced to learn grammar four hours a day. It goes against everything we've ever learned by studying real language acquisition."

Rolstad wrote the entry titled "English Immersion" in a 2008 text, Encyclopedia of Bilingual Education.In it, she compares efforts to teach English speakers foreign languages with the challenges of instruction for English language learners — in essence, comparing Spanish immersion with English immersion.

In a program like Squaw Peak's, it would take a student at least six years to become close to fluent in Spanish, Rolstad says.

Such programs are highly successful in both teaching a foreign language and increasing academic test scores across the board, the professor adds — and they should under no circumstances be compared to efforts like Arizona's ELL program.

"Ironically, when pressed for evidence to support the use of this one-year, monolingual program model, English-immersion advocates typically cite the success of the six-year, bilingual-immersion programs," Rolstad writes.

This is about much more than academic models and statistical studies, Rolstad says, adding that Arizona is not the only place where she sees bigotry. Not long ago, Rolstad observed a school program in Culver City, California. Not only did kids learn one another's languages, they were encouraged to learn about their culture. Well, some of them were.

As part of a Japanese-immersion program, the English-speaking kids visited the Japanese-speaking kids' homes, and the Japanese speakers visited the English speakers' homes. But a similar Spanish program didn't place the Mexican kids in the white kids' homes — or vice versa. She was horrified. Language instruction is not only about academic prowess, Rolstad says.

"We're trying to teach something much bigger. Respect."

Squaw Peak's Spanish-immersion program hasn't simply sold itself. Renee Shamblin and Amy McSheffrey have done that — with videos, brochures, and a website, You can also friend the program on Facebook, and PTA members frequently lead tours of the school.

There is no entrance exam at Squaw Peak or extra costs, though donations are, of course, appreciated (and solicited). The only requirement for entrance is that a child be able to pass an English-proficiency test, if that comes into question. (Hence, the lack of brown faces in Contreras/Bennett's classrooms.)

This is certainly not the first such program to market itself — the Osborn schools have an impressive page on the district's website (, and Cave Creek school officials do a nice job of promoting their efforts, as well. But Shamblin and McSheffrey have a school to save. They mean business.

And business is good. The final item to go in the marketing toolbox: test scores. Squaw Peak Principal Faith Burtamekh says some are out but says the district has not yet made them public.

Of course, success is difficult to measure much after just one year. And yet the year was a significant one in the history of a school so close to complete failure. Two years ago, kindergarten graduation was a small affair, with just one class taking the stage for a traditional celebration. This year, it was standing room only. At dusk one evening in late May, parents headed to the streamer- and balloon-filled cafeteria, while Bennett and Contreras' students gathered in Bennett's room to get ready.

Both Contreras and Bennett teeter on impossibly high heels, and their students are all dressed up, too. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance, and a surprise. Mariachis are at the door to escort the kids to the cafeteria.

Inside, they sit at the front of the room, alongside the traditional kindergarten class, and when it's their turn, they cross the stage for certificates and hugs. Even if this whole thing is mostly about brainpower and the global economy, it's clear that it's about more than that, too. A tinny stereo blasts a Jack Johnson song, and the kids sing along:

This world keeps spinning and there's no time to waste

Well it all keeps spinning spinning round and round and

Upside down

Who's to say what's impossible and can't be found

I don't want this feeling to go away.

It won't. When school starts August 8, Cara Bennett and Ana Contreras will be back — with 25 kindergartners each and more a waiting list. First grade will have two sections of Spanish immersion, and there are two new second-grade sections, as well. If all goes as planned, they'll add a third grade next year.

The on-campus preschool — where kids start at age 2, with almost complete Spanish immersion — has increased enrollment from 50 kids to more than 90.

It might be time soon to set up those portables again. But this time, it probably will be under a new name. On August 16, Creighton's school board will vote on a new name approved by the school community and submitted by the principal: Biltmore Preparatory Academy.


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