Drowning in English Immersion
by Agustin Gurza
Los Angeles, CA
Mar. 9, 1999

CI graduate Virginia Mosqueda had to acquire a new skill after voters passed Prop. 227, the law that abruptly halted bilingual education.

She had to learn to say no. No to the parents who worry that their children are falling behind in English-immersion classes. No to their requests for after-school tutoring to help with homework that the parents can't read, much less understand. "Por favor. Se lo ruego" (Please. I beg of you), parents would plead. No, Mosqueda was forced to say again and again.

Mosqueda, 25, runs a homework center in Delhi, an old Latino neighborhood in Santa Ana. She and a small staff tutor about 50 Latino kids from this crowded, blue-collar barrio known for its strong Catholic parish and its street gang.

The program was launched by a nonprofit neighborhood group last summer, just after Mosqueda emerged from UC Irvine with a degree in political science. Almost simultaneously, Prop. 227 became law, forcing schools to suddenly switch to English instruction. By fall, there was a waiting list for the Delhi tutors, who work out of a portable classroom with hand-me-down tables. Today, 54 children are still waiting for room to enroll.

There's just one big problem. The school year's already half over. This rash initiative tries to address the needs of immigrant parents who can't help their children with classwork in English. The law makes available $50 million per year to help prepare parents and others to be tutors. Santa Ana Unified got $1.4 million. L.A. got $11.8 million.

But the money wasn't allocated until the end of January, and Santa Ana doesn't expect to have a program in place until June. Besides, how long will it take adults to become fluent enough to help the kids who need it now?

To be fair, not all students are sinking. Maybe not even most. Some Spanish can still be used in class. And teachers say they're amazed at how quickly some youngsters are picking up English. (I'm not. My son shed most of his Spanish in a nanosecond. He's a model of unfortunate success in a world that bans bilingualism.)

My fear is for those kids who aren't cutting it. Can you imagine them trying to catch up after a whole academic term blows past them in a foreign language, and we're still tinkering with training tutors? Soon, struggling students will face a double whammy, some educators fear. Because the end of bilingual education coincides with the end of social promotion, which means flunking failing kids.

"If a child is not doing well in his course work, he's going to be asked to repeat it," said Howard Bryan, Santa Ana's director of bilingual education. "Yet who's out there to help them?"

Very good question.

Bilingual classes are still available to those who apply for waivers. But it's preposterous to expect immigrant parents to slog through contradictory scientific research and choose intelligently between immersion and bilingual education. We don't ask parents to pick the rest of the curriculum, depending on what they think is best for their kids. Do we? ("Dear Parent: Would you like phonics or whole language? How about our Eurocentric History course, or would you rather have your kids learn what really happened to the Indians in the California missions?")

It's ironic because many Mexicans are accustomed to letting the schools make all the classroom decisions. They come here, poor and uneducated, and unquestioningly turn the power over to the teachers. Some even are willing to let la maestra hit their kids if they misbehave.

Now, voters who never set foot in these Latino schools are calling the shots. In the case of 227, I always thought supporters were less interested in creating sound educational policy than in eradicating Latino culture and language from the state's institutions. That's why the public has moved on. Problem solved.

Ron Unz, the millionaire non-educator who conceived 227, has cooked up a similar bilingual ban to cleanse Arizona, birthplace of bilingual education.

Hopefully, voters there won't fall for the cynical pitch that it's all "for the children."

Back at the Delhi homework center, Mosqueda doesn't care who's right or wrong. She needs help right away. But she wonders why none of her volunteers so far are from the pro-227 camp.

"If people [who supported the law] really, really truly felt they wanted to help the kids, where are they?"

Muy buena pregunta.