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Immersed In Dispute
All-English classes don't go down easily with Latino youths
Sunday, 9 March 2003

By Sarah Garrecht Gassen

Arizona voters endorsed the goal of teaching students their subjects in English, whether they know the language or not.

But three years later, it's still a hard sell for the kids at Tolson Elementary School on Tucson's West Side.

One thing some of them want to know is why they can't learn two languages at once.

"It's wrong that people who don't know English have to learn English before going into their own language again," said Kevin
Hernandez, 10.

But state schools superintendent Tom Horne, who's trying to strengthen enforcement of the voter-approved English-only mandate known as Proposition 203, says the best way to learn English is to be immersed in it.

"I feel the Latino kids are being sacrificed," Horne said. "If they're not yet fluent in English, they listen to the Spanish and they're
not learning English fast enough."

Next school year, students learning English cannot take any subjects in their native language unless they do well enough on a test to be labeled "English speaker." That's tougher than today's standard for enrolling in bilingual education classes, which requires only that they earn the status of "limited" English proficiency.

Horne said districts that do not follow the new rules will face consequences, but he would not say what.

About 10 percent of the 5,826 Tucson Unified School District students who were allowed this year to attend bilingual classes would be ineligible under the new, tougher rules.

Teachers in English immersion classrooms must teach academics in English only, using Spanish just to give basic directions. Bilingual teachers are allowed to teach in Spanish, although much of the instruction is in English as students learn both languages.

Tolson children in both types of classes see benefits of learning both languages.

"I would like to know Spanish and English so I can know more," said Laura Lopez, 9, enrolled in one of Tolson's English immersion classes. "My family speaks both languages, but I don't feel comfortable speaking Spanish because I don't really know it."

Native Spanish speaker Jaciel Fierro spends much of her class time at Tolson looking down at a blank notebook page. She struggles to understand fourth-grade lessons in social studies, math, reading and Arizona history taught in English, a language she hardly knows.

Teacher Annabelle Badilla works with Jaciel individually, but she must also teach the other children who fill her class of 27. Friends help her when they can, but Jaciel is often left to struggle.

English immersion classes do not automatically receive teaching assistants, a benefit bilingual classes currently enjoy in TUSD under an agreement with the teachers' bargaining unit.

District Superintendent Stan Paz wants to talk about changing that policy during teacher contract negotiations this year, to let principals decide where teaching assistants are needed.

"We need to make it so this young lady has some adult working with her, because teachers can't depend on students to translate," Paz said. "It's not fair to her or the other students."

Jaciel's teacher said she would benefit from a bilingual classroom. But state superintendent Horne said such a move would be terrible.

"She'll never be proficient in English. That's a scandalous thing to do to someone," he said.

The state Education Department will offer a best-practices seminar in May on how to teach English immersion.

Across the hall from Jaciel's class at Tolson, students in Martha Badilla's bilingual fifth-grade classroom learn fractions in English, but the teacher is allowed to use Spanish if needed. Students say they have lessons in Spanish twice a week but the rest of the lessons are taught in English.

Native Spanish speakers answer questions in English as they do math problems, but they say they appreciate that they don't have to rely on fellow students for translation or help when they are stuck.

They say hearing both languages helps them learn English.

"I was in a sheltered English immersion class last year, and they teach more English here," said fifth-grader Fernanda Dominguez.

Julio Uzarraga, who hopes to attend college and become a priest, said he prefers bilingual classes because students don't have to lose their Spanish skills to learn English.

"It's easier being in a bilingual class. Otherwise I don't understand because there's no way to communicate," said Jesus Gamez, who attended an English-only class last year in California. "It was hard. I was nervous because I didn't understand, so I didn't know what to do."

Back in the English-only room, Jaciel does not participate in class discussions. She struggles trying to write in English but swiftly churns out essays in her native Spanish. She spent time looking at a photo book of athletes while the rest of the class reviewed lessons.

Teacher Annabelle Badilla works with Jaciel one-on-one, sounding out and reading "I like the " and using flashcards to fill in words like "dog" and "cat."

Badilla said she often has to resort to hand gestures.

The fourth-grader is frustrated and lost.

"It's hard because everyone just speaks English," Jaciel said. "I feel bad. I understand a little, but it's hard."

Jaciel's classmates try their best to help. They watch her keenly, trying to anticipate.

"When she's stuck on a word she holds her pencil and looks at the paper and doesn't write. That's when I know," said her friend Kevin Hernandez.

"She understands a little bit, but she doesn't understand what we're supposed to do," Kevin said. "We talk about who is going to help her."

Students are willing to help Jaciel learn, they say, but Badilla worries it comes at their own expense.

"At least we're helping," said Robert Pearson, 10. "We can help sometimes, but we also have to get our work done, too."

Lupita Mendez, 10, says she helps Jaciel by reading beginning-level English storybooks with her. Lupita reads and Jaciel repeats the words.

Her friends say Jaciel understands more when they're playing than during class. But playground English doesn't translate to learning academics, Annabelle Badilla said.

The fourth-graders know Jaciel is struggling and say their teacher isn't allowed to help as much as she needs or wants to.

"The teacher doesn't say too much Spanish because she can get in trouble," said Josh Miller, 10. "She can only say 'do math' or 'get in line,' just like that stuff."

Jaciel's classmates in the English-only classroom want to know Spanish, too.

Some of the students already are bilingual, but others want to learn - they've learned the pitfalls of not understanding a language firsthand.

Josh repeated a Spanish word he heard from another kid, not knowing what it meant.

"I said a Spanish bad word when a substitute teacher was here, but I didn't know it was a Spanish bad word," Josh said. "People kept telling the teacher what it meant, that it was a cuss word, and she took my recess away."

* Contact reporter Sarah Garrecht Gassen at 573-4117 or at sgassen@azstarnet.com.

The changes

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is cracking down on waivers that allow Arizona students into bilingual Spanish-English classes:

  • Students who do not know English must be placed in a "sheltered English immersion" class where teachers may teach only in English. 
  • Effective next school year, a student may receive a waiver to attend bilingual classes if he or she is a "fluent English speaker." The old benchmark was "limited English speaker." Students may also qualify by testing at their grade levels on standardized tests of English vocabulary comprehension, reading and writing. 
  • Students 10 and older may no longer receive an automatic waiver. Now they must have specific needs documented by their teacher and principal.