Some bilingual parents say English comes first

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

DENVER -- Juan Garcia read ''El Patito Feo'' -- ''The Ugly Duckling'' -- in Spanish to his 4-year-old daughter, his knees nearly to his chest as he sat in a tiny chair in the pre-kindergarten class.

Paola listened to her father as she copied English words in a workbook. A crude, but legible version of C-A-T emerged.

The part-time janitor and his daughter were attending a bilingual class at Jose Valdez Elementary School -- one of many around the state. Garcia hopes his child never struggles with English as he does.

But some Hispanic immigrants are blaming such classes for slowing children's progress in English. An amendment on the Nov. 5 ballot would require 70,000 children to learn English in an intense program aimed at getting them into regular classrooms after one year. A similar measure is on the ballot in Massachusetts.

Students could continue in bilingual education if their parents request waivers. Both measures, however, would allow for educators to be barred from teaching and from public office if parents later make a case that their child was damaged by being kept out of a mainstream classroom.

Construction worker Edgar Maciel, 17, dropped out of high school his freshman year after five years in bilingual programs.

''I felt I was capable of learning English but they insisted in teaching me in Spanish,'' Maciel said. ''They should teach us in English. Even if we don't know we try.''

Educators acknowledge that there have been problems with bilingual programs, including a lack of tests to determine when to put a child in a mainstream classroom. Colorado recently enacted a law that caps at three years the amount of time children spend in such programs.

''We had a lull in responsibility,'' said Flora Lenhart, director of a unit that oversees bilingual programs through the Colorado Department of Education. ''We thought we were doing a good job and our kids were doing well but things were not really materializing.''


Pamela Ruger, 8, right, and Isabelle Zaik, 8, classmates at Washington Elementary School in Boulder, Colo., hold a sign during a rally in opposition to Amendment 31, Sunday afternoon, Oct. 13, 2002, at South High School in Denver, Colo. Hundreds of parents and students from Colorado's dual-language schools rallied on Sunday against the ballot initiative they say would cripple efforts to teach children to speak both English and Spanish.

AP Photo/The Denver Post, Andy Cross

Part of the problem was lack of accountability since schools applied for money directly to the U.S. Department of Education. None of the $43.7 million in federal funds spent since 1998 in Colorado was handled by the state, Lenhart said.

The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 changes that. School districts now submit their grant requests to each state's education department.

Still, some educators, including Valdez Principal Tom Archuleta, argue that one year usually is not enough for most Spanish-speaking students to learn English.

While children who have been attending good schools in their country of origin might learn the language quickly, many immigrants come from poor, rural communities without strong education systems, he said.

But Lupe Martinez, who speaks English but prefers her native Spanish, wants her four children to be placed in mainstream classrooms.

''What do those who oppose the amendment think? That the Hispanics can't learn English,'' Martinez said. ''I'm not opposed to my children being bilingual but they should know English first.''

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