Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/1016Spanish.html

No-Spanish rule vexes students
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 16, 2003
Mel MelÚndez

Technical school's regulation oversteps law, attorney says

An East Valley technical school is prohibiting students from speaking Spanish in class, a move a Phoenix attorney said oversteps Arizona's English-immersion mandate while highlighting the challenges of implementing the controversial law.

"This is a lawsuit waiting to happen," civil rights attorney Stephen Montoya said. "Forbidding a student from speaking their native language, even in a classroom setting, violates the free-speech clause of the First Amendment."

Earlier this month, East Valley Institute of Technology officials told several cosmetology students they must refrain from using Spanish during class. One of the students, Patricia Otero, 16, balked at the rule and brought up the incident at last weekend's Mesa Latino Town Hall, after the school could not produce a policy on its English-only stance.

Institute officials say the school's English-only position backs the spirit of Arizona's English-immersion law, which voters approved in 2000. The school would make accommodations for monolingual Spanish speakers, but all of the girls speak English, Principal Janet Cox said.

During a nearly three-hour meeting Oct. 6 with the girls' parents, officials said the students could speak any language on campus except during class hours to avoid potential misunderstandings or conflicts.

"We don't want to stop their ability to be bilingual," Assistant Principal Dana Saar said. "We want them to maintain those skills because they're such a big plus in the marketplace.

"But the girls are holding conversations in Spanish, which could cause the teacher to lose control of the classroom."

Otero, who is bilingual, said she supports English-immersion instruction. But expecting students to refrain from using their native language "amongst themselves" is unreasonable, she said.

"This is my first language. I think I should be able to use it as long as it doesn't interfere with the class," she said. "This is an informal class in a salon where everyone talks, so why can't we?"

The incident is one of several in the Valley highlighting the challenges of Proposition 203, which replaced bilingual education with English immersion in the 2001-02 school year. Since then, the law has resulted in several contentious battles because it is filled with loopholes and the term "English-immersion" is often interpreted differently from school to school.

Recent flare-ups include the English-only controversy at P.T. Coe Elementary School in Phoenix, where teachers said they were told to ban Spanish on campus, and a federal civil rights investigation of the Paradise Valley Unified School district over allegations that Spanish-speaking parents were discriminated against at schools.

The law clearly states that all instruction needs to be in "Structured English Immersion." But teachers can use a student's native language to clarify terms. It purposely omits the issue of students speaking other languages to steer clear of civil rights challenges, Montoya said.

"But many teachers still mistakenly feel English immersion means everything has to be in English, which is not the law," he said.

Mesa High School Principal Pete Lesar said many of the misunderstandings stem from teachers' passion to help English learners become fluent. Otero, a junior at Mesa High, is one of 2,000 students from 10 feeder school districts that also attend the institute.

Lesar contacted the institute to get further clarification of its English-only policies. But he declined to speak on the issue to avoid conflicts with the technical school that serves about 85 Mesa High students.

"I will say that we (Mesa Unified) do not have a rule or policy regarding what languages students speak in our classrooms," he said. "We want to create an atmosphere where students can celebrate their traditions and culture and speaking in their native language is one way to do that."

Otero's mother, Gabriela, said she wished more schools embraced that philosophy.

"I walked out of that EVIT meeting so disappointed because I had to explain to my daughter that they wouldn't budge, and she couldn't use the language she loves," she said.

"Latinos often lapse into Spanish when talking to each other. It's a way for us to bond. But they're telling her she's being rude and making it seem wrong for her to use it. It's very disheartening."

Reach the reporter at mel.melendez@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-7758.