Making the Case for Spanish at School Defenders of Bilingual Education Rally in an Effort to Defeat California Ballot Initiative

Article excerpt

At first glance, this border town of 22,000 has all the makings for social and educational disaster: high gang activity, high drug and alcohol abuse, 25 to 30 percent unemployment, and low income - only $12,000 per family, on average.

But because of innovative policies set in motion nearly 30 years ago, the small district's 11 public schools have become a national model of success in bilingual education - sending 93 percent of a recent high school class to college. Now, with countrywide debate swirling over moves to ditch bilingual programs and immerse students in English only - fueled, in part, by a California ballot initiative - Calexico's long-term success has moved to the front of the debate.

"If bilingual education can be made to work in this town, it can work anywhere in California or America," says Gloria Celaya, principal of Main Elementary School here. The California ballot measure pressing the issue is Proposition 227, a citizens' initiative that would end bilingual-education programs in Calexico and across the nation's most-populous state. Under the initiative, the 1.4 million students with limited English proficiency (LEP) - more than half the national total - would be placed in regular classrooms after only one year of English language instruction. With the considerable funds of initiative sponsor and wealthy California businessman Ron Unz behind it, Prop. 227 quickly grabbed steady media coverage with its message that the state's 30-year experiment with bilingual education has failed. But with the vote roughly two months away, the anti-Prop. 227 forces are joining together to fight back. And as voters take a closer look at the fine print, poll results have begun to shift just as they did in the final months before other precedent-setting initiatives here. At a late February gathering in Dallas of 20 of the largest Hispanic organizations in the United States, members of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) urged California voters to reject the measure as "dangerous and extreme." "History has proven that English-only instruction harms Hispanic students in several ways," says Arturo Vargas, chairman of NHLA. "It makes the acquisition of English difficult and frustrating. It unnecessarily delays academic subject matter learning. It prevents parents with limited-English skills from actively participating in their children's schooling. And it sharply increases the rate at which Hispanic students drop out." Instead of throwing out the many varied programs of bilingual education that have not worked, Prop. 227 opponents ask, why not model programs after the successes of Calexico? Indeed, 80 percent of the 7,000 students in Calexico are LEP, yet the Hispanic dropout rate there is half the state average. Main reasons for success A tour of the 650-student Main elementary facility reveals a long list of reasons for success: highly trained bilingual teachers; involvement by parents, teachers, and the broader community; and widespread programs to deal with student's emotional concerns and social skills. …


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