The mounting criticism of bilingual education sounds hauntingly familiar to Nydia Hernandez.
It brings back disturbing memories of her childhood, of standing in the corner of a Los Angeles elementary school classroom, her vision blurred from staring at the line where the two walls intersected, blurred also by tears. She remembers the whispers of her classmates and the fearsome voice of the teacher who punished her for not speaking English.
"If we were caught speaking Spanish, we had to stand in the corner, or we were punished in other ways," said Hernandez, a bilingual elementary school teacher in Santa Ana. "Even if we were outside in the playground or in the restrooms, we were not allowed to speak Spanish. It hit me so hard. I kept thinking: 'What's wrong? What's wrong with me?' "
The 43-year-old educator, named bilingual teacher of the year last month by the California Assn. for Bilingual Education, fears for the future of her students if Spanish is again banned from the classroom, as some have proposed.
At Pio Pico Elementary School in Santa Ana, where she has taught for three years, 99% of the school's 865 students are Latino. About 80% of them have limited English skills. In an English-only environment, Hernandez fears, many of her students would experience the same alienation she suffered as a child, increasing the chances some might turn to gangs for the cultural acceptance missing from the classroom.
"I wish people would understand that when you speak about language, you're also talking about culture. You're talking about who a person is," she said.
"The main misconception of bilingual education is that English is not being taught. But bilingual education is a program set up so that children can learn English but at the same time maintain their academic, cognitive development, so they can do higher-level problem solving while English is being acquired. People hear the words 'bilingual education' and think Spanish. I don't think they see the whole picture."
Hernandez expects increasing attacks on bilingual education after the state Board of Education's Feb. 9 decision allowing the Westminster School District to teach all students in English, while increasing the number of bilingual aides. Presidential contender and U.S. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has called for an end to most bilingual education classes and state Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle has called bilingual education a "disaster" for students.
Several bills are pending in the Assembly that propose a radical overhaul of bilingual education for the state's 1.2 million students who speak limited English. And earlier this month, Latino parents in the Los Angeles Unified School District conducted a weeklong boycott of the Ninth Street School, demanding their children be placed in English-only classrooms.
"It doesn't look very positive overall, but I don't want to say that bilingual education is going to go out the door. Those who are against bilingual education are making their voices heard. We know that bilingual education works, but the struggle to prove it is going to be difficult."
Like many of her current students, Hernandez grew up in a Spanish-speaking family. Her mother is from Mexico and her late father was born in Puerto Rico. She was born and raised in Southwest Los Angeles, near Watts, where she lived with her brother, sister and two cousins. Success in college and career came in spite of the "sink or swim" methods of her early schooling, she said.
"I cried a lot. I told my mother I didn't want to go to school anymore. I would hold onto the gate and to her skirt and whatever else I could, not wanting to step into that environment," Hernandez said. "My mother told me it was important to be proud of who we were, that our language was important, but that it was also important for us to learn English. My mother would always say: 'The most important person is the teacher. You listen to them and you obey.'
"We all tried to support each other, but some of us did much better than others. We were trying to do what we were asked to do in the classroom situation, and survive. But because we were struggling with English, we were made to feel inferior, emotionally and academically."
Hernandez acknowledges that critics of bilingual education include some Spanish-speaking parents who worry their children are not learning English fast enough.
"I doubt that those parents represent the majority, but there is a voice there that needs to be heard," she said. "If there is a concern that there is not enough English being taught, let's not get rid of the bilingual program, but let's carefully evaluate the program we have at hand."
Hernandez is convinced that without bilingual education, students who are capable of advanced schoolwork in their own language would be held back, limited to only the most basic course work until their language skills improve.