English-Language Learners

E.D. Appointee ‘From the Trenches’ Gives Bilingual Educators Hope for Compromise

By Julie A. Miller — May 24, 1989 7 min read

Miami--When members of the National Association for Bilingual Education gave a standing ovation to Rita Esquivel at a May 12 meeting here, they were also applauding what they hope will be a new era of cooperation between bilingual educators and the Education Department.

Ms. Esquivel, who has been named director of the department’s office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, is one of their own: a career educator and a nabe member who has directed federally funded bilingual programs at the local level.

She was appointed by Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, a Hispanic who has voiced strong support for bilingual programs, and who chose to announce her appointment at the organization’s national conference.

It was an event that would have seemed highly improbable to many people involved in the issue just a year ago.

“What is significant is the way this announcement was made, not just what the Secretary said or what Rita said,” said James J. Lyons, nabe’s legislative counsel for many years and its new executive director. “In the past Administration, we were shunned and basically spat upon by Bennett, and that helped no one.”

Mr. Cavazos’ predecessor, William J. Bennett, did constant battle with bilingual educators. He denounced bilingual programs as a failure and criticized educators for de-emphasizing the teaching of English. Advocates had turned such efforts into “an emblem of cultural pride,” he argued.

The last time a department official appeared at a nabe conference, she walked off the dais in anger. Carol Pendas Whitten, the director of obemla from 1985 to 1987, faced a barrage of criticism and pointed questions after addressing a 1987 nabe gathering.

“I thought I was addressing a professional organization, instead of a political-action committee,” she said at the time.

Mr. Bennett and other Reagan Administration officials maintained that they did not support any one method, but rather wanted to give local officials the freedom to choose the type of instruction most appropriate for their limited-English-proficient students.

The Administration sought to make “special alternative” programs, which do not teach students in their native language, eligible for more federal funds. Bilingual-education advocates generally oppose such programs as ineffective.

Mr. Cavazos has supported the “flexibility” policy, but has not said how much federal money he wants to go to special-alternative grants.

Alicia C. Coro, who is currently acting director of obemla, said the grants in the ongoing 1988 competition would be awarded on the basis of “quality.” But a department source said in March--and reaffirmed last week--that some special-alternative programs are to be funded instead of transitional-bilingual applicants that received higher review scores. (See Education Week, March 15, 1989.)

Bilingual-education advocates also oppose a special $2-million competition, announced in March, which they contend is biased in favor of special-alternative applicants.

Despite continuing disagreements over such issues, advocates believe they may eventually see a change of heart, and of policy, under Mr. Cavazos and Ms. Esquivel, who plans to assume her new post July 1.

“I’m optimistic that for the first time, we have a proven educator, someone who has been in the trenches and supports bilingual education,” said Rodolfo Chavez of Arizona State University, the new president of nabe.

“It’s nice to be optimistic for once,” he said, while acknowledging that neither the Secretary nor Ms. Esquivel had overtly promised a change in department policy.

“I’m pleased the Secretary has chosen to honor us by choosing this association, this conference, this city to make the announcement,” Mr. Chavez said. “If he’s interested in forging a partnership, he took important steps in Miami.”

Mr. Cavazos did not attend the conference, instead sending a videotape in which he introduced Ms. Esquivel. Both his speech and the new director’s--each of which was delivered partially in Spanish--promised continued support for local flexibility, while hinting at solidarity with nabe members.

“We must not, out of zeal to further a cause in which we all believe, narrow our focus to a single approach or even to a single goal,” Ms. Esquivel said. “The phrase ‘bi8lingual education’ still has a variety of good meanings in the profession, and we must keep all of these viable if we are to make significant progress.”

“We must allow the rich diversity of our educational system a free rein in trying to solve the problems of language-minority children,” she said. “We must stop looking for the ‘single right answer’ and start looking for the ‘right approaches’ for a given community.”

Both Ms. Esquivel and Mr. Cavazos won the audience’s vocal approval by vowing to fight for the rights of limited-English-proficient students and pledging support for retention of the students’ native languages.

“The sink-or-swim days of learning English are over and they must never be allowed to come back,” Mr. Cavazos said, to vigorous applause.

“Students need to learn English as quickly as possible, but they also need to learn to value their native language and heritage,” he said.

In an interview, Ms. Esquivel declined to discuss specifically the distribution of federal funds among different types of bilingual-education programs.

But she indicated that she sees native-language instruction as the best option, where feasible--the position taken by most nabe members.

“If a great number of people belong to one language group, it makes sense to explain to that group in the language they understand,” Ms. Esquivel observed.

“I can’t teach you to ride a bicycle in a language you don’t understand, because you’ll fall on your face,” she said, adding that it would be much easier to explain bike-riding in a familiar tongue and then “switch to the second language.”

Ms. Esquivel said both she and Mr. Cavazos hope to change the American public’s “negative perceptions” about bilingual education.

“We’d like people to understand that what we want is for kids to learn English, and we want them to be very good citizens of this country,” she said. “If in any way I could change the negative perceptions, I would be very happy.”

Ms. Esquivel said repeatedly that she is eager to bring her experience as a career educator to Washington.

A native of San Antonio, Ms. Esquivel started teaching there in 1953. She has worked since 1963 for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where she has served as a teacher and in various administrative positions. (See Education Week, May 17, 1989.)

Ms. Esquivel has not taught bilingual-education classes. But she has taught English to adults and has served as coordinator of the Malibu district’s federal programs, including bilingual education. She also has earned a bilingual teaching certificate--because, she said, she wanted the experience of taking the test.

In the interview, Ms. Esquivel exhibited warmth and humor as she spoke openly about her excitement over her new job as “a dream come true,” her successful fight against breast cancer, and her personal experience with bilingualism.

When she was a child in Catholic schools, she recalled, the nuns would not allow her to study Spanish. Thus, she could speak the language, but could not read and write it until she studied it in college.

“It was really criminal,” she said. “I had two vocabularies. I knew all the herbs and spices in Spanish, because my grandmother taught me to cook, but I didn’t know the words for ‘tennis court,’ because I played tennis in English.”

Asked if it felt strange to be part of a department that had been so much at odds with nabe, Ms. Esquivel said that things have changed.

“I work for a different secretary and a different President. I have in-the-trenches experience; I come directly from a school district,” she noted.

“One of the things I would really want to see, and I think it is happening, is that both [the department and nabe] are on the same side now,” Ms. Esquivel said. “At least that’s true today.”

The conference appeared to bear out her contention. Every participant questioned about Ms. Esquivel and Mr. Cavazos reacted with praise and enthusiasm, and the new obemla chief was the center of attention.

After her address, she nodded in apparent assent through a speech critical of past department policy given by Ed Steinman, the lawyer who argued for the plaintiffs in Lau v. Nichols. That 1974 case established the right of children who do not speak English to receive special instruction.

She also attended several other conference sessions, including the awards banquet, where she sat at the head table--something many nabe members said they did not think any federal official had done before.

Ultimately, it is the feeling that she is one of them that makes nabe members so optimistic about Ms. Esquivel.

“I have a lot of hope,” said Rosa Castro Feinberg, a member of the Dade County Board of Education. “We all have a lot of hope.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 1989 edition of Education Week as E.D. Appointee ‘From the Trenches’ Gives Bilingual Educators Hope for Compromise


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