Nada Chance

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Later, Julio is at his desk working on the assignment written on the board: Write each spelling word in two sentences.

One of the words is "family."

Julio scribbles his sentences in English into a light-blue journal: My family is little. My family is cute.

Witte glides over to Julio. The boy, slightly startled, slaps his hand on the desk, trying to cover his work. Julio is very timid. He grins ear to ear to hide his discomfort. But he won't let Witte help him. Witte backs off and tells him just to underline the spelling words.

Julio's lucky that the little girl with the long, dark hair sitting next to him can translate Witte's instructions.

Julio is clearly uncomfortable in this mostly English environment, embarrassed that he needs help from a teacher. That could also explain his poor academic performance. Being in an English immersion class would likely enhance his shyness -- and his poor grades.

Except for one African-American kid who speaks English fluently and is in the class because he can't read very well, Julio's classmates are all Latino. All, except Julio, seem enthusiastic. All, except Julio, seem to be learning English.

Under Proposition 203, if kids have not learned to speak English after one year, a program must be available so they can continue English instruction. A literacy test determines whether they're ready to move into mainstream classrooms. So even under the ballot measure, some kids could stay in ESL-type classes for several years, although most probably won't.

In California's Oceanside School District, which is doing more with immersion than any other district, officials have created a "bridge program" for those trailing kids.

Julio has a few more tests to take before the school makes its final decision about placing him in special ed classes. Administrators also have to talk to his parents.

Back home, stretched out on the sofa with his chin to his chest, Julio is oblivious to the activity surrounding him. Like his older brother, the future is showing little promise.

Right now, Julio's only interest is Nintendo, but the family can't afford one. With a timid, ear-to-ear grin, he says he wants to be a doctor. He doesn't know why, it's just a dream of his.

Every workday for two years, Martín Sr. has pedaled his red mountain bike three miles to work and three miles back. He says he will continue the bicycle commute until the family can afford to buy a car. He has no idea when that might be.

All day he stacks heavy 8-by-4-foot sheets of Sheetrock. The physical intensity of the job may explain his veiny, leathery hands and lean forearms.

At six bucks an hour, 40 hours a week, he makes roughly $240 a week, $1,000 a month.

He uses $150 a month to make his trailer payment. He's halfway to paying off the $3,000 mortgage that's being held by a fellow Mexicano. After utilities and food, there is little left over for other things, like entertainment.

Recently, with the aid of coupons provided by a friend, the family made it to the state fair. Each kid got a bag of popcorn and tickets for a couple of rides. This was a rare outing.

Martín Sr. is 39, about 6-foot-3, lanky, with defined cheekbones and a pointed nose. He wears a blue ball cap etched with his company's logo and a loose-fitting black tee shirt airbrushed with a picture of a pachuco and a lowrider car on the back. His thin legs are covered in faded blue jeans.

He came to the United States four years ago after his business, a corner store, went bankrupt. Too much competition, rising taxes and stricter government policies on the sale of alcohol drove him out of business, he says in Spanish.

Maria says he made the decision to cross the border almost overnight. Some friends talked him into it one evening, she says. The next morning, he was gone.

That was about four years ago. Martín Sr. crossed the border at Juárez into El Paso.

He stayed with different friends in houses and apartments until he made a deal with the trailer's owner to buy it.

It was a white woman who helped him get his first job at a fruit packing plant, he says. After a few more jobs in the agriculture industry, he landed the job at the Sheetrock plant.

Although he earned only about what he makes now, Martín Sr. managed to save $1,500 to bring his family to Phoenix. A coyote smuggled Maria and the kids across the border at Agua Prieta into Douglas.

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Caleb Correa