'Who wouldn't want to' learn English?
Immigrant children struggle, embrace bilingual education
By Berny Morson, Rocky Mountain News October 12, 2002
Yabileth Ronquillo wants to be a lawyer.
That’s a realistic goal for the bright 11-year-old, says Lisa Mahannah,
Yabileth’s teacher at Richard Castro Elementary School in west Denver.
"One thing Yabileth has is she’s a hard worker," Mahannah says. "She’s great at
But Yabileth, 11, who came to Denver from Chihuahua, Mexico, with her family
nine years ago, faces a major hurdle —
English. She’s in the fifth grade, but reads at the second- or third-grade
Now Yabileth’s problem has become a state issue.
Under Amendment 31 on the Nov. 5 ballot, the estimated 70,000 students who are
not proficient in English would be placed in special classes, where they would
receive intensive training in the language, usually for one year. All
instruction would be in English. Bilingual classes would be allowed only with
The program at Castro and other Denver schools is conducted under a federal
court order issued in the tangled litigation over the city’s history of racial
discrimination. Amendment 31 would not apply until U.S. District Judge Richard
P. Matsch lifts the order.
Castro Principal Frank Gonzales fends instruction in Spanish for some students
as a way to keep them from falling behind in academic subjects such as math
while they get up to speed in English.
"I’m a firm believer in using Spanish to get to that (math) concept," Gonzales
At the end of three years at Castro, students will know English, while retaining
their Spanish, he says.
Gonzales dismisses the debate over whether to teach students in English or
Spanish, saying, "That’s the political stuff. My idea is to help kids with
Parents say they want their children to learn English.
"More doors will open, here or in Mexico — anywhere in the world, a bilingual
person has more opportunity," says Elias Ronquillo, Yabileth’s father.
A bilingual school
At Castro, academic instruction is continuous from the time students say the
Pledge of Allegiance — in English and Spanish in some classes — until they line
up to go home or to lunch.
The school enrolls 630 students, with 286 receiving help in English. Most of the
students — 97 percent — are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches.
One morning last week, fifth-grade students read books in English at their desks
while Mahannah worked with groups of three or four students who need extra help.
"Each one of you has to look in the book and give me an action word," Mahannah
tells one group. "‘Knocked?’" Yabileth asks tentatively.
"Knocked!" Mahannah affirms.
"‘Speak,’" Yabileth says, pointing to another word.
Yabileth’s group is reading Nate the Great and the Fishy Prize, a story in
English about a young detective hot on the trail of a lost tuna fish can. It’s a
book for younger kids.
"I’d like to see her at level 4," Mahannah says.
But Yabileth has grown a lot since last year, when she was in a fourth-grade
class taught partly in Spanish, Mahannah says. Mahannah’s class is entirely in
"She just needs that exposure to the language," Mahannah says.
Mahannah is not fluent in Spanish, but she has had 150 hours of training in
helping kids like Yabileth who are struggling with English.
"They do get help. We’re not just throwing them in there," Mahannah says.
Mahannah saw a breakthrough a few weeks ago when Yabileth felt confident enough
to read something she had written — in English — to the rest of the class. It
was a letter to a member of the school’s sister class in Gambia, Africa.
"It was a big step for her," Mahannah says.
But last week, Yabileth struggled to edit a paragraph Mahannah handed out to
students. She had difficulty with "hold" and "held."
Learning English is hard, Yabileth said later. But she understands the need.
"So I can communicate with other people," she says.
She knew some when she started school. She learned from her father, Elias, who
says he understands English better than he can speak it.
Elias Ronquillo encourages Yabileth to think about becoming a lawyer. Lawyers
can oppose injustice, especially for working people, says Ronquillo, who works
as an insulator.
Yabileth, tall for her age, with dark eyes and hair, has a slightly different
take on lawyers. Standing on the playground one
morning, she explains that lawyers get a lot of money, but don’t do much work,
an impression she picked up after her family had an automobile accident.
A lesson with bears
Yabileth says she likes to read, in English and Spanish. Sometimes she reads to
her younger sister, Magaly, 6.
"She loves Barney stories," Yabileth says.
A little kid with an impish smile, Magaly speaks little English. She wants to be
a letter carrier.
"She likes to wait for the mail every day when she’s home," says Elias, the
"Magaly likes to hug people, but she doesn’t say much," Yabileth explains.
Magaly is in a first-grade class taught mostly in Spanish, with a 45-minute
English lesson each day.
Yabileth arrived one morning carrying Magaly’s enormous white teddy bear, named
"Tu osa," Yabileth said, handing the bear to Magaly.
The bear was part of an English lesson.
For days, first-grade teacher Jennifer Buck had been teaching children the
English words for colors and articles of clothing by dressing a bear named
Now the children were describing their own bears in English.
"Where did you get your bear?" Buck asks.
"At my happy birthday," Magaly says. "It was in a big..."
"Box," Buck coaches.
After bears, Buck goes through names of family members, using pictures of her
"My grandpa is married to my..." Buck says.
"Grandma," several children respond.
Instruction during the rest of the day is entirely in Spanish.
Buck goes through letter sounds and syllables, using a story about a bird in a
nest and a poem about frogs.
"There’s not a lot of downtime," Buck says after more than two hours without a
"We try to give them a firm foundation — a firm foundation in their native
language," she says.
Parents push kids to learn
Students in Buck’s class come from families where no one speaks English. Other
classes include more instruction in English.
Parents of Buck’s students say they want their children to learn English.
"Who wouldn’t want to?" asks Veronica Jurado.
She is a cook in a restaurant, and her husband, Saul, does construction work.
They came to the United States from Durango, Mexico, eight years ago, seeking
Their son, Namir, 6, is in Buck’s class.
He likes to read, but mostly in Spanish. Namir says he wants to learn English
"so I can understand those who talk to me in
Veronica Jurado says she’s not worried her children will forget their Spanish.
They’ll probably stay in the United States.
"They’ll have a better life here," she says.
"Because we are in America, that’s why," says Blanca Medina when asked why her
son, Erick, 6, should learn English.
Without English, he won’t get ahead, says Medina, a waitress.
The need to learn the language is impressed upon parents painfully when they
can’t communicate with people in their new
Last week, Buck had to accompany Christian Galvan, 6, to the hospital when he
caught his finger in a door at school. Neither Christian nor his mother,
Guadalupe, speaks English.
The previous week, a school secretary accompanied a child to the hospital who
broke his arm.
The doctor’s office is where they feel most vulnerable, the parents say.
"I get very nervous when I get a doctor who doesn’t understand Spanish, because
I don’t understand English," said Gabriela Medina, who is related by marriage to
Both Medinas — along with Blanca’s mother Maria — were among a score of parents
who showed up for a recent after-school English class Gonzales teaches for
He conducts the class in a combination of English and Spanish.
"Everybody I met wants to learn English," Gonzales says.
"It’s more than getting a job," he says. "It’s improving their way of life. I
guess it’s the American dream."
News assistant Maria Mora-Chavez contributed to this report.
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