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School dazed by Prop. 203's approval

By Daniel González
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 13, 2000

It's been almost a week since Arizona bilingual education went down in a statewide referendum, but teachers, students and staff at one Valley elementary school remain in denial.

"I believe teaching (students) in their native language helps them with their cognitive development," Rosemary Agneessens, principal at Creighton Elementary School, reasoned Friday as if Election Day hadn't yet happened and there was still time to save bilingual education.

Among some students, there also remains a considerable amount of anger at voters for approving a ballot initiative they believe was a racially motivated attempt at making them fail in school, not succeed.

"We should put everything in Spanish and see how well those gringos learn," one eighth-grader, Liliana Rivera, 14, said in Spanish.

"I felt like socking those people in the face," another, Monique Araiza, 13, added in English.

Confusion also abounds as the realities of abiding by the new law slowly begin to sink in. Proposition 203, which passed with 63 percent of the vote, orders public schools to dismantle existing bilingual education programs, many of which have been in existence for years, and replace them with one-year intensive English immersion programs for all English learners.

About 45,000 of the state's English learners are currently enrolled in bilingual education programs. An additional 90,000 are enrolled in English as a Second Language programs that may or may not fit the law's definition of immersion.

The new law probably won't take effect until the beginning of the next school year. But Agneessens said even that may not be enough time to fully convert from bilingual education to immersion at Creighton, where two- thirds of the 1,117 students now learn in bilingual education or dual-language classes.

"There are a lot of key issues that still have to be figured out," Agneessens said. Among them: Where will the money come from to pay for switching instructional materials from Spanish to English? And how will bilingual teachers be retrained for immersion?

Amid all the uncertainty, fourth-grade teacher Lisa Quiroga continued to teach the 27 students in her dual-language class as usual last week. Half the students in her class are Spanish-speakers learning English, the other half are English speakers learning Spanish. The students spend half the day learning in Spanish and half the day learning in English.

"These kids are scared," Quiroga said. "They've told me, 'What's going to happen?' They are worried that our program won't exist anymore, and they are happy here.

"They are learning to be bilingual and biliterate."

On Friday, Quiroga decided to turn Proposition 203 into a teaching opportunity.

Take out a piece of paper and pencil, she told the students. We're going to write an essay. The topic? Why I'm proud to be bilingual.

Reach the reporter at daniel.gonzalez@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8312.