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Latino Politicians, Intellectuals and Community Leaders Abandoning California Farmworker Children

Nov 14, 2007
Let's imagine your parents are farmworkers and speak only Spanish. All you hear at home is Spanish. Your friend's parents are farmworkers too so they all speak Spanish. And with your friends you speak Spanish. At church the padre or minister conducts the service in Spanish. You go to any store in 'Mexicano' downtown Watsonville or East Salinas and they all speak Spanish too. But as a parent you don't worry about your kid speaking English.

As a parent you 'know' and feel it's the public school's responsibility to teach kids English. That is what you are led to believe. In fact, there is a law in California that prohibits schools from teaching in Spanish. Well, most of the time. If the parents petition the school they can get a waiver that allows the student to attend classes half of the time in English and half in Spanish.

If the average student is actively participating in English class only 10% of that half time, then that means the average Spanish speaking student is actively involved in learning English from 15 to 20 minutes a day. No Saturdays, Sundays, Fourth of July, Cinco de Mayo or summer vacation. What results can we expect from such a shortsighted strategy?

When a child enters public schools they are given an English proficiency test. Those that pass go on to regular classes conducted in English. Those that don't pass go into a class with other Spanish speakers. Students in this class will stay there until their English becomes proficient enough to enter regular class or 'mainstream' or they drop out.

At the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Central Coast California this English proficiency process can take from four to six years. That means that if a non-English speaking student enters the first grade they will not be mainstreaming until sometime after the fourth grade. Maybe until Junior High or Middle School. By the time the child is that far behind they get frustrated and often give up. What happened to No Child Left Behind? Many drop out and their prime cause of failure is lack of English. They are not mentally handicapped as the current system implies.

It seems everyone involved has a stake in maintaining this Twilight Zone status quo. The students like it because learning English is very hard. The parents like it because they can reassure themselves that it is the school's responsibility and it's doing a good job. The teachers like it because it's easier. The administrators like it because they can demonstrate everyone is doing the best they can and the standardized test scores somehow show it. The school boards like it as long as they get compliance and continued funding. The Latino politicians and community leaders don't have to take a stand and show their record on English.

While English is mandated in No Child Left Behind it is not regulated. There are no guidelines. That's because it is a State regulated issue. In California, with billions in State Education funds, all those bright folks in the California Department of Education and all those six figure PhDs can't figure out what English proficiency is so they push the decision down to school districts like the Pajaro Valley Unified School District.

Clearly the PVUSD is struggling. The school board, a group of well meaning citizens, had to hire a newspaper reporter to give bimonthly reports on board activities. It's not that the Board is collectively stupid. One of the members is an executive in a large corporation. They are all bright and caring folks. They just endlessly bicker, have other agendas and some are clueless. They either do not understand the gravity of the situation or are simply not willing to stand up and defend the very kids they were elected to represent.

They buy all the excuses. They buy the argument that culture and diversity and self esteem are more important than getting down and dirty and learning English the way non-English speakers always have. They agree with many of the politicians, intellectuals, advocates and teachers that Spanish speaking kids have bruised egos and shouldn't be overstressed by being forced to learn English. The result is Spanish speaking kids are put in special 'English Proficiency' programs and treated as if they were disabled or handicapped.

Stress? Self-esteem? On what planet are these well meaning folks coming from?

Stress is going to a job or college interview and being told come back when you have improved your English. Stress is having a co-worker get the promotion you wanted because you couldn't speak English well enough. Stress is not being able to go to Junior College until you learn English. Stress is having to disappoint your parents by following them to work in the fields.

The emperor is wearing no clothes. The system is flawed, broken and cannot be fixed by changing 'standards' or inventing more tests. Or more focus groups. No committees or online discussion groups can fix it. No need in throwing more money at this black hole or fooling ourselves that everything remains 'muy bueno.' From Governor Arnold on down everybody passes the buck until there is no accountability. The buck is passed down and down until it stops with a school board that can't even write its own reports let alone understand that English is the showstopper.

These are the facts: a moderately intelligent Spanish speaking student can learn a basic conversational English of about 2500 words in six months and be conversationally fluent in one year.

English? To paraphrase Mexican author B. Traven and Latino American playwright Luis Valdez: English? We don't need no stinking English!

Well, maybe the politicos and community leaders and Latino intellectuals don't need any stinking English. But for Spanish speaking Latino kids in California, English is their opportunity showstopper. It's time Latino leaders stand up, acknowledge this fact and fix it. It's time English becomes the priority. California's Latino Spanish speaking school children deserve better from their own 'raza'. And California deserves better...

About the Author
Jack D. Deal is a resident of Santa Cruz, California USA and Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, Mexico. He is the author of "Ingles Basico Para Ninos" and "Ingles Moderno Para Jovenes Modernos." Related articles may be found at http://www.jddeal.com and http://www.freeandinquiringmind.typepad.com
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