Bilingual Blues

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."

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Michael Kiefer