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. …