As a small child, Felipe Sepulveda Jr. migrated with his family from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Southern California, a traditional destination for Latin American immigrants seeking a better life in the United States.
“Life was a struggle,” Sepulveda, now 18, recalled recently. His family moved from one low-rent apartment to another. Sometimes, money was so tight that they shared a unit with another family and crowded into a single bedroom. Other times, they lived in a relative’s garage.
Sepulveda didn’t speak English when, as a 5-year-old, he started kindergarten. Once, he couldn’t understand his English-speaking teacher when she directed him to the bathroom and wandered the campus in misery until a Spanish-speaking janitor gave him directions. But within two months, he spoke enough English to be the “first kid in the class to count to 100.”
As he advanced through elementary school, the instability of poverty made it hard to study: no kitchen table for homework, no house with a white picket fence to anchor him and his two siblings as they navigated two linguistic worlds—Spanish at home and English in school.
The Sepulveda kids and their parents belonged to a group the U.S. Census Bureau calls “limited-English proficient”—anyone older than 5 who self-reports speaking English “less than very well.” In 2010, 25.2 million people with limited English proficiency lived in the United States, about two-thirds of them Hispanic. Not surprisingly, the most people with limited English proficiency live in traditional immigrant destinations such as Texas, New York, Illinois, and, above all, California. But as diversity diffuses, their numbers are growing in places less accustomed to new arrivals, such as Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Georgia, Nebraska, and Tennessee, the Migration Policy Institute reported in 2011.
Once they started school, the Sepulveda children were also, briefly, part of a diverse demographic: the large number of students, primarily Latin American and Asian, known as English-language learners—students who are learning English but speak another language at home. These students, who have not yet mastered “academic English” (thinking in, reading, and writing English well enough to advance in school, college, and careers), now represent one in nine American students. About three-fourths of the English learners in elementary school, and half of those in high school, are American citizens.
The two groups—English learners in schools and those over 5 who report limited English proficiency—have fueled a bitter debate over the future of English, and how best to teach it, in an increasingly diverse nation.
Few people dispute that English is a key marker of the American identity—and the ticket to assimilation, economic success, and social cohesion. But the language wars, fought in state legislatures, the courts, and public schools across the U.S., center on whether new cultures and languages threaten or strengthen English, and the nation’s future.
In this regard, the story of Felipe Sepulveda’s family is instructive. His older sister attended public schools, barely earned her high school diploma, and now works at a movie theater. When she graduated, no one in the family knew much about college. Sepulveda figured if he, too, could just get through high school, he would escape the poverty he had grown up with.
In his first year of high school, though, he was accepted into the Puente Project. Funded by the state of California, it’s a bridge program that helps poor, mostly Latino high school kids, including many who speak Spanish at home, set goals for a four-year college diploma. Counselors, teachers, and parents team to nurture the critical-thinking, speaking, and writing skills that yield academic success. For Sepulveda, it worked. This fall he will attend Harvard University.
The Sepulveda family lives in Anaheim, in the shadow of the Happiest Place on Earth—Disneyland, the beloved theme park built around core American values of patriotism, hard work, and expanding frontiers. One ride, inspired by the song “It’s a Small World,” transports visitors through a musical global wonderland, which, according to Disney promoters, helps children “realize how much we have in common.”
Anaheim itself is a small world—but it hasn’t always been easy for the people living there to realize how much they have in common. The area has been a magnet for new arrivals since Spanish padres built missions and converted Native Americans to Catholicism in the 18th century. Successive waves of Indians, Californios, German grape farmers (Ana refers to the nearby Santa Ana River; heim means “home” in German), European-American citrus growers and real-estate developers, Mexican agricultural and high-tech workers, Vietnamese refugees, other Asian newcomers, and Arabs—all settled in what is now north-central Orange County.
Diversity, and the integration of new Americans with the native-born, hasn’t come easily. The county once had a healthy Ku Klux Klan chapter, and, more recently, a group of Minutemen. But demographic change has overwhelmed the resistance: Tool down Brookhurst, a main Anaheim thoroughfare, and you’ll spot a HoneyBaked Ham store a few blocks from Al-Anwar Islamic Fashion. If you get your car serviced at Jiffy Lube and have time to kill, you can grab a taco at Taquería Arandas, a smoke at Hookah Tobacco Zone, or a skinny latte at Starbucks.
The dominant language in Anaheim is not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic or Hindi, though.
Anyone who fears that America’s growing diversity threatens the American identity and will turn it into a non-English-speaking Babel would do well to visit Anaheim. It provides a lens through which we can view our nation’s future, and the future of English as the language that identifies and binds us as Americans.
“We are looking at the future in Anaheim,” said Michael Matsuda, an Anaheim Union High School District administrator and third-generation Japanese-American whose parents, both U.S. citizens, were interned in a camp in Arizona during World War II.
“We have an immigrant-based population, either foreign-born or first-generation,” he said during an interview in the district office. “Orange County has a lot of wealth, but it is along the coast and on the hills. There are very poor areas of Anaheim. It is the future because the demographics are mostly immigrants, people of color—these marginalized folks.”
As viewed through the Anaheim prism, there’s good news and bad news about the future of English. The good news is that many immigrant children are learning English quickly and well. The bad news is that by the third generation, many have lost the language of their grandparents and an attendant bilingualism that could be an asset to the United State as it competes in a global economy.
“No mother tongue can be expected to survive beyond the third generation given the linguistic survival probabilities in Southern California,” wrote Rubén Rumbaut, Douglas Massey, and Frank Bean in a 2006 report in Population and Development Review. Asian languages die out “at or near the second generation,” and Mexican Spanish vanishes at 3.1 generations, the sociologists found.
And there’s more bad news: Some “long-term” English learners, mostly high school students who have languished for six years or more in voter-mandated English-learning classes, still have not mastered academic English well enough to attend college or advance economically. Many fall behind in school, which puts them at risk of dropping out altogether. Dropouts are on a trajectory of decreased earning potential, higher reliance on social services and Medicaid, and higher incarceration rates.
Of the 32,000 students in the Anaheim Union High School District, about a quarter are English learners. Sixty percent of these are former or current English learners. The district has launched an effort to save these kids from dropping out by encouraging English learners in mainstream classrooms to think critically in, read, write, and speak English in all their classes, right along with their English-speaking peers. It has welcomed culturally sensitive programs, like Felipe Sepulveda’s beloved Puente, into the schools. Now, test scores are improving, and the dropout rate is declining.
Anaheim’s successes and failures with English learners can be instructive to other American communities facing the same challenges.
By 2050, the Census Bureau projects, minorities will outnumber non-Hispanic whites and will compose a majority of the U.S. population.
Anaheim is already there. More than half—about 53 percent—of Anaheim’s 336,000 residents claim Hispanic heritage. Asians make up roughly 15 percent of the population and blacks just over 2 percent, which leaves non-Hispanic whites as less than 28 percent of the community’s residents.
Significantly, about 60 percent of Anaheim residents speak a language other than English at home. Immigrant students in Anaheim schools speak more than 50 languages.
But chances are they want to take up English. Modern immigrants in the United States are learning English faster than previous waves of immigrants, the Migration Policy Institute reported in 2011. Less than half of immigrants who came to the U.S. between 1900 and 1920 spoke English within five years of their arrival, but 75 percent of immigrants who came between 1980 and 2000 spoke English within five years, according to MPI.
“English is the language of commerce. I don’t know of anyone who resists or resents learning English,” said José Moreno as he sipped an icy horchata at Anaheim’s El Nopal restaurant. Moreno, a former undocumented immigrant who completed his doctorate at Harvard, is a California State University (Long Beach) professor and an expert on Hispanic education. He cautions that not knowing academic English is just one of several factors—including poverty, segregation, life experiences, and immigration status—that must be dealt with before many smart, capable Latino kids are able to breach the so-called Latino achievement gap. Many poor Latino children and English learners, he said, are losing an “academic arms race” with upper-middle-class and affluent kids—in part because a narrowed English-only curriculum sometimes holds them back.
As the United States moves toward its multicultural future, the battles over English rage in courts, schools, and legislatures. Peel away the layers of the debate and you’ll often find discomfort with immigration at the core.
No federal law mandates English as the official national language, but 31 states have legislated English as their official state language.
Fully four in 10 Americans (and nearly half of whites) reported feeling “bothered” when meeting people in the U.S. who speak little or no English, a 2012 Pew Research Center study found. In 2004, the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute reported that “much of the hostility toward immigrants” in the American South focused on their inability to speak English.
Over the past 14 years, voters in three states—Massachusetts, California, and Arizona—have passed school-based English-learning initiatives. These measures all but killed bilingual education for English learners. In “transitional” bilingual education, English learners study some subjects—math and social studies, for example—in their mother tongue. The goal is to learn academic English. All three states essentially replaced bilingual-English learning with English-immersion programs—intense English-only classes aimed at teaching learners academic English as quickly as possible. (Such English-learner immersion classes shouldn’t be confused with “dual-immersion” programs, which focus on teaching students literacy and fluency in two languages at once.) All three states allow parents of English learners to seek waivers to opt their students out of the voter-mandated English-learning program. Such waivers are rarely sought in Massachusetts and difficult to get in Arizona, but obtained more frequently in California.
Massachusetts allows English learners to attend dual-immersion classes without waivers if the school offers such classes. But dual-immersion programs are largely confined to wealthier schools, where parents fight for the rights of their kids to learn two languages. In the Bay State, transitional bilingual English learning was largely blocked by the initiative, and the Massachusetts dropout rate for Hispanic English learners hovers near 26 percent, compared with an overall rate of 7.2 percent.
Massachusetts has the fewest English learners—about 68,000—of the three states. (Arizona has 100,000 and California 1.5 million.) The real battles in the English wars are being waged in the two Western states.
The three state initiatives were backed by English for the Children, founded by Ron Unz, a Harvard-educated California software entrepreneur. Unz calls himself a pro-immigrant conservative, and on his website, he takes credit for “effectively dismantling one-third of the nation’s bilingual programs.” He says he spearheaded the initiatives at the request of Hispanic activists disenchanted with bilingual education. According to his website, since the initiatives have been in place, immigrant test scores in California have risen 40 percent.
Proponents of bilingual education in California counter that test scores for both English learners and English speakers have risen since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002, and they point out that the knowledge gap between English learners and English speakers has not changed since the state school English initiative was passed.
Another group that favors the end of bilingual education is ProEnglish, cofounded by John Tanton, a Michigan doctor who is a patriarch of the modern movement to severely restrict immigration into the United States. He founded and still advises the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which was instrumental in authoring Arizona’s controversial immigration law, S.B. 1070.
The Supreme Court upheld a provision of S.B. 1070 that allows Arizona law-enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people they stop, detain, or arrest if the officer has “reasonable suspicion” the person is in the country illegally. According to a police training video, the first criterion for reasonable suspicion is when the person speaks English poorly.
During the height of Arizona’s immigration battles, Tom Horne headed the Arizona Department of Education. Under Horne’s watch, teachers in state-funded schools were monitored for signs of heavy foreign accents, as well as for speaking Spanish or posting Spanish signs in English-learner classrooms, both forbidden under the Arizona initiative. (The Justice Department in 2011 ordered an end to the monitoring of accents.) Under Horne, the state Education Department also ended a popular Latino ethnic-studies program in Tucson schools, saying it promoted hatred of whites.
Horne had supported a successful voter initiative in 2006 that mandated a four-hour daily English-only “immersion” program for English learners in Arizona schools. His aim: to teach English learners the language in one year.
“I am the bilingual destroyer,” Horne, now the Arizona attorney general, told National Journal recently. “Bilingual classes for English learners,” he said, are a “copout.”
Horne is quick to clarify: He’s a fan of bilingualism and taught himself Spanish. But he’s no fan of bilingual classes for English learners. Students taught English through immersion master the language more quickly, he argues, outperform bilingual English learners, and move on to rewarding careers in greater numbers.
In the four years since voters mandated four-hour blocks of English-language study, only 33.5 percent of Arizona’s English learners have “reclassified,” or tested out of the program, according to the state’s Department of Education. Such reclassified students are mainstreamed and allowed to take the electives necessary for high school graduation and college. In Horne’s view, the other two-thirds of English learners should also be sent, after a year of intense English immersion, into the regular classrooms.
Critics say that the intense English-only immersion programs often fail to teach academic English in one year, and that as a result long-term English learners languish in segregated classrooms, sometimes deprived of academic content necessary to graduate from high school.
Salvador Gabaldón, a language-acquisition specialist for the Tucson Unified School District, maintains that many Arizona English learners stay in immersion for at least three years, which puts them behind in academic subjects and thus diminishes their odds of graduating. In Gabaldón’s view, advocates of English-only programs in schools believe “speaking English makes you American, so you need to give up your native language to acquire English, and somehow it will make you more American if you are monolingual. I think that’s a very seriously flawed idea, because it makes you less educated.”
The Civil Rights Project at the University of California (Los Angeles), codirected by Patricia Gándara and Gary Orfield, has been sharply critical of Arizona’s English-learner program. In one 2012 study, “Segregating Arizona’s English Learners: A Return to the ‘Mexican Room’?” Gándara and Orfield noted that 80 percent of the state’s English learners are Spanish speakers who face “increasing segregation” in school. “Excessive segregation of Arizona’s Latino and [English-learner] students is most probably harmful to these students’ achievement and social and emotional development,” the education professors wrote.
Despite mounting peer-reviewed criticism from analysts like Gándara and Orfield, Arizona remains deeply committed to teaching its 100,000 English learners according to the initiative plan. But the battle over English in California is taking a different turn.
California’s modern English wars began in the 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all English learners in California schools were entitled to an equal education. Two decades later, California voters passed Proposition 187, which, among other things, refused educational access to undocumented immigrant children. The courts overturned the law, and it never took effect. But in a 1998 referendum, voters again passed the English Language in Public Schools initiative that ended most bilingual education. The initiative created a convulsive change in the way the state taught English learners. At the time, 30 percent of English learners studied in bilingual classes. Now, only 5 percent of English learners have access to bilingual classes. Fourteen years after the initiative was passed, it faces increasing resistance from educators, students, and parents.
California has 1.5 million English learners—more than any other state. In 2010, 29 percent of English learners dropped out of California high schools. The next year, the dropout rate decreased to 24.9 percent. That still vastly exceeds the state’s overall dropout rate of 14.4 percent.
But the reduction in California’s Latino and English-learner dropout rate, however slight, indicates that California may be turning a corner. Signaling a change in educational philosophy, California recently created a “Seal of Biliteracy” to affix to the diplomas of high school graduates who have demonstrated academic proficiency in two or more languages. The upshot: Students are recognized for their foreign-language prowess, which makes them feel more valued and their immigrant parents feel more “American,” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, of Californians Together, the largest English-learner advocacy group in the state.
In January, the California Department of Education formed a special division to focus on the needs of its English learners, and hired Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, the department chair of language-policy studies and cross-cultural education at California State University (San Diego) to lead the effort. She is also the former president of Californians Together.
California’s English-in-schools initiative, Cadiero-Kaplan said in a recent interview, makes it easier for parents to obtain waivers and opt out of English-only immersion blocks. She supports research-driven changes to better teach English learners. That includes overall teacher training, a new look at English-proficiency testing, and viewing the “primary language” of English learners as an asset, not a hindrance. California will also align English learners with shared “Common Core” educational standards soon to be adopted by most states, which could help them maintain academic pace with other students.
One community where educational trends are improving is Anaheim, Felipe Sepulveda’s hometown. Three years ago, his district took a dramatic turn. In an era of No Child Left Behind, the accountability program established under the George W. Bush administration, mind-numbing “teaching to the test” had taken over Anaheim high schools, and, thanks to the earlier voter initiative, English learners languished in immersion programs. Electives like science, history, athletics, and the arts were cut. Latino students suffered high dropout rates and low test scores.
“We were at a crossroads,” explained Anaheim Union High School District’s Matsuda, who coordinates teacher support and professional development. (Matsuda is also president of Californians Together.)
Anaheim has poor, largely Latino schools and richer schools with more Asian and Anglo students. Anaheim High School fits into the first category, and about 60 percent of its 3,300 students are former or current English learners.
So, a core group of district-trained teachers mentored other teachers struggling to develop critical-thinking, reading, and writing skills for English learners. Around the same time, Anaheim High began implementing new lesson designs. The goals: mainstreaming of English learners, literacy in every class, growth of world language skills, and a mastery of academic English through a focus on reading, writing, and thinking in every classroom. In addition, the district welcomed programs like Puente that seek new ways to connect with English learners; created more opportunities to engage in science, technology, and math; and began a dual-language immersion program in one school.
In a geometry class at Anaheim High, for instance, one project involves designing and creating cereal boxes, then using critical-thinking, writing, and speaking skills to “sell” their products to the teacher.
Down the hall, students might debate in English, discussing the social and economic pros and cons of constitutional amendments. English words key to academic success—“feature,” “function,” “predicted,” “sequence”—are written on cards affixed to the wall.
In another classroom, teacher Brian Gilliam reviews his students’ written reports and Excel spreadsheets that crunch labor statistics, tax data, and real-estate numbers. This same class prepared income-tax forms for real clients—in English. Most of Gilliam’s students are English learners.
“We are fighting for the heart and soul of our country,” Gilliam said. “If these kids disengage from education, it’s game over.”
Almost everyone agrees that parental involvement is key to the success of English learners. But many Latino parents don’t have the educational background to advocate for their children and help them learn at home. At Anaheim High and other Orange County schools, a federal program called GEAR UP, administered through California State University (Fullerton), helps parents with little formal schooling learn to advocate for their English learners and understand what it takes to aim for college. The director of the program, Adriana Badillo, herself an immigrant, understands “systemic change” is needed by communities rich with English learners and their parents. Last summer, for instance, GEAR UP hosted a book club every Saturday morning for several weeks. The students read The Hunger Games, and teachers designed a Hunger Games lesson plan built around reading, writing, and critical thinking. It was a smashing success.
“English,” one student said at a recent GEAR UP meeting, “is survival.”
“It’s also understanding,” she said. “Without it we would not be connected.”
While mastering academic English is key for long-term high school English learners, younger learners elsewhere in Anaheim might be starting a trend by learning two academic languages at once. At Adelaide Price Elementary School, a feeder school for Anaheim high schools, Anglo, Latino, and Asian kids learn to read, write, and speak academic Spanish and English in a “dual immersion” program. Unlike most schools that teach two languages, this isn’t a school in a particularly affluent neighborhood.
Classroom signs are written in two languages: “Respect is not a gift; you have to earn it. El respeto no es un regalo. Tienes que ganartelo.” You might run into kindergartners figuring out days of the week in Spanish, while next door, first-graders study sentence construction in English. Fifth-graders might finish a science project in English, while sixth-grade “Awesome Scholars” might pump out America the Beautiful on their recorders. Now that these older kids are mastering academic Spanish and English, they’re working on a third language: music.
The results of Anaheim’s bold changes: Latino dropout rates have declined, and more students completed a college-prep curriculum.
At a recent gala in a youth club, Harvard-bound Sepulveda and fellow college-bound grads from Anaheim’s Magnolia High School were feted by teachers, parents, and high school underclassmen. The jubilant graduating seniors sat together at long tables and ate Mexican food their moms had prepared.
These former English learners served as a testament to Anaheim’s innovative curriculum changes, to culturally sensitive programs that involve Latino parents, and to the resilience of English in an increasingly diverse America.
In 2004, Deborah Schildkraut surveyed Americans of all ethnicities and races to see if the nation’s rapidly changing demographics threaten what it means to be American. Now a professor at Tufts University and the author of Americanism in the Twenty-First Century: Public Opinion in the Age of Immigration, Schildkraut learned that Americans of all ethnicities still hold dear those time-honored markers of American identity, including hard work, honoring and respecting cultural traditions, patriotism—and speaking English. Indeed, 94.1 percent of people in her survey reported that “being able to speak English” is “very or somewhat important in making someone a true American.”
That holds for Sepulveda’s dad, Felipe Sepulveda Sr. Although he’s an American citizen now, the elder Felipe first came to the United States as a Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrant. He had once washed dishes and toiled at factories but now is an independent trucker. He picked up English by listening to English-language radio and television. He agrees that speaking English is key to being an American.
When he immigrated in the 1990s, Felipe Sr. had a 10th-grade education. (MPI reports half of LEP adults have a high school diploma.) Without the state-funded Puente program in his son’s school, he said he would not have understood the importance of college, or how to help his son get there. Now he helps other Puente parents monitor grades and homework on the Internet, and keep tabs with teachers and counselors.
At least one “Puentista” at the gala, a former English learner, was an undocumented immigrant, one of perhaps 11 million unauthorized migrants in the United States today. The student’s mother, who is also undocumented, said the Obama administration’s record deportations made her leery of school administrators at first. Now, under a new Obama administration administrative order, the graduating Magnolia High student will be one of 1.4 million noncriminal unauthorized immigrants eligible to pursue renewable two-year authorizations to work and study in the U.S. She’s headed to Cal State (Fullerton).
Many Puentistas are Latinos who battled extreme poverty as they excelled in high school. Felipe Jr., for instance, worked at a movie theater all week, “very time consuming” but he had to help support the family. He didn’t have time for many extracurricular activities—just work, study, family time, and, when he could squeeze it in, reading a book. (He’s reading Les Miserables this summer.)
Felipe Jr. credits part of his success to his English skills. That’s due to his own hard work, his parents’ support, and the creativity and courage of Anaheim teachers, counselors, and administrators like Michael Matsuda who understand that in the United States, all our futures are “intertwined.” Felipe Jr. treasures knowing two languages: He considers his Spanish a “gift,” but is proud that English is his dominant language. Spanish helps him understand his culture and his roots, he says, but English makes him feel American.
Terry Greene Sterling, author of Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone, lives in the Phoenix area.
This article appears in the July 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.