Arizona Republic
August 26, 2006

Author: Dianna M. Nez

Dorisela Hernandez cried as she described what it felt like to see her boy shunned by neighborhood kids because he could not speak English.

So when it came time to enroll her son, Christian Acosta, 5, in kindergarten, she could not bear the thought of him managing painful moments without a mother's love to intercede.

"I worried because I don't speak English," Hernandez said. "I worried about my little boy because he only speaks Spanish."

For non-English-speaking families like Hernandez's, language barriers can heighten new school year fears about children making friends, understanding homework and liking their teacher.

Hernandez said her concerns prompted her to call El Mirage Elementary School a couple of weeks before classes started.

"I didn't understand the lady very well," she said. "That really worried me.
But they told me about meet-the-teacher night."

The young mother said meeting the teacher, Crystal Sanchez, put her mind at ease when she found out the teacher spoke Spanish.

"It made me feel better knowing she will understand my son and know how he's doing," Hernandez said. "If my little boy doesn't understand, she can help him and I can ask how he's doing."

On the first day of school, Christian was not crying and neither was his mother. Hernandez, laughing, said he woke up at 6 a.m., put on his backpack, and notified her that "it was time to go to school, mommy."

He wants to learn English, she said. "He told me he would learn so he can teach me."

Although Christian's teacher can speak Spanish, she is limited in her instructional use of the language because voters passed legislation, in 2000, banning bilingual education in Arizona. Proponents of the bill argued English-immersion programs help children learn English faster. Critics argued that teaching kids in their native language and English helps them to maintain their studies as they become English proficient.

Parents like Carmen Esparza, whose son Isaac Jonathan Esparza sits at Christian's table, want their kids to be multi-lingual.

"I think it's wonderful to speak not only English and Spanish, but other languages," said Esparza. "I moved here when I was six and couldn't speak English. It was very hard because the teachers didn't really speak Spanish.
The ones that helped me were my classmates."

Esparza said teaching her son Spanish and English was a priority. She believes it will help him to get a better job one day and remain close to his grandparents.

Parent Coordinator Tish Marquez said the Dysart Unified School District provides non-English-speaking families support by offering free English-as-a-second language and citizenship classes, and monthly educational workshops.

As part of their efforts, former Dysart board member Rachel Villanueva said she would like to see the district implement a bilingual volunteer team to help ease non-English speakers' transition.

Marquez said the district's goal is to "educate the entire family. We encourage our parents to volunteer so they can be involved in their child's learning."

Marquez said her experience coming to the U.S. as an eighth-grader helps her relate to students learning English.

"There was only one school in Los Angeles for English-learners," Marquez said. "I was not accepted by other students."

CAPTION: Dorisela Hernandez' son Christian (seated) is enrolled in the English Language Learners program at El Mirage Elementary.