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Poll: Language a barrier for Latinos in schools

Arizona recently ordered its schools to remove teachers with heavy foreign accents

By HOPE YEN and CHRISTINE ARMARIO, Associated Press Writers

WASHINGTON, D.C. August 5, 2010 (AP): English only?

With Latino enrollment surging in schools, many Spanish-speaking parents are having trouble helping their children with homework or communicating with U.S. teachers as English-immersion classes proliferate in K-12.

An Associated Press-Univision poll highlights the language and cultural obstacles for the nation's Latinos, who lag behind others when it comes to graduating from high school.

The findings also raise questions about whether English-immersion does more to assimilate or isolatea heated debate that has divided states, academics and even the U.S. Supreme Court. Arizona recently ordered its schools to remove teachers with heavy foreign accents from English-language instruction, while the Obama administration is seeking to push more multilingual teaching in K-12 classrooms.

``The language barrier is still a serious risk factor for Hispanics,'' said Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor emeritus of education who helped analyze the survey. Even with many schools replacing Spanish with English in classrooms, for a student evaluated as learning English, ``the odds of completing high school, and particularly college, significantly drops.''

The nationwide poll, also sponsored by The Nielsen Company and Stanford University, found the vast majority of Latinos78 percenthad children enrolled in K-12 classes that were taught mostly in English, compared with 3 percent in Spanish.

How the AP-Univision poll was conducted
August 5, 2010: The Associated Press-Univision poll of Latino adults was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago from March 11 to June 3. It is based on a nationally representative random sample of 1,521 Latino adults. Data were gathered via mail, the Internet and telephone. The majority of interviews, 82 percent, were completed via mail; 15 percent were completed by via telephone and 4 percent via the Internet.

The sponsors and funders of the project include The Associated Press, Univision Communications Inc., The Nielsen Company and Stanford University. Stanford University's participation was made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Fifty-three percent of interviews were conducted in English and 47 percent were done in Spanish.

All respondents were offered a monetary incentive to complete the study.

The probability sample of Latino households was provided by The Nielsen Company. Nielsen conducts an annual survey of Latino households in the United States for its television viewing ratings services. The sample frame for this survey incorporated 3,427 households that were previously contacted by Nielsen and estimated to be Latino.

The response rate for the original Nielsen survey is estimated to be 90 percent. The cumulative response rate for the AP-Univision survey was estimated to be approximately 40 percent.

The final sample was statistically adjusted to be a more accurate representation of all Latino householders in the United States based on geography and Latino residential penetration, educational attainment and language usage by the householder, as well as the householder's age, sex and country of origin.

No more than 1 time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 3.5 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all Hispanics in the U.S. were polled.

There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.

The questions and results for this poll are available at http://surveys.ap.org.

Just 20 percent of mainly Spanish-speaking parents say they were able to communicate ``extremely well'' with their child's school, compared with 35 percent of Latinos who speak English fluently.

About 42 percent of the Spanish speakers said it was easy for them to help with their children's schoolwork, compared with 59 percent of the Latinos who speak English well.

Children of Spanish-dominant parents also were less likely to seek help with homework from their families. Fifty-seven percent of those parents said their children came to them with school questions. That's compared with 80 percent for mainly English-speaking Latino parents, who also were more likely to send their children to relatives or friends for answers.

The hardships often center on language for Latino parents, who value a high school diploma more than the general population and want to support their children, according to the poll. But educators say the problems can be cultural, too, if some Latino parents feel less comfortable acting as vocal advocates for education, such as meeting with teachers or lobbying for an extra honors class.

Under federal law, if the parents' English is limited, schools must provide notices and information about student activities in a language they can understand. The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is now reviewing some school districts to see if students are being denied a fair education.

``It's difficult for me,'' said Carmen Arevalo, 30, who arrived in the United States 12 years ago from El Salvador and doesn't speak English. Arevalo has an 8-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter in Miami public schools and says she has constant challenges with communication, even though many of her children's teachers speak English and Spanish.

``Sometimes I feel uncomfortable, because sometimes I don't know what they will be saying to the children,'' Arevalo said as she watched her son play soccer.

Roxana Montoya, an El Salvador native in Miami who is learning to speak English, says she often struggled to help her 12-year-old son with school. Montoya said she would check the Internet to translate her questions for teachers and spend hours going through his middle-school coursework. ``He'd get out at 3 and at 9, we still wouldn't be done with the homework,'' she said.

The educational stakes are high.

Roughly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home, with Latinos representing the largest share, according to 2009 census data. Latinos also now make up one-fourth of the nation's kindergartners, part of a historic trend in which minorities are projected to become the new U.S. majority by midcentury.

Still, Latinos are nearly three times as likely than the general U.S. population to drop out of high school, and half as likely to earn a bachelor's degree.

Other AP-Univision poll findings:

_Many Latinos lack confidence in the quality of education at their local public schools. About 47 percent said they believed the K-12 schools were excellent or good, compared with 48 percent who described them as ``fair,'' ``poor'' or ``very poor.''

_About 63 percent of Latinos believe it would help the U.S. economy ``a lot'' if more students completed high school, compared with 40 percent for the general population.

Citing some of the racial gaps, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is urging parents to take more responsibility. He said the government will require districts to get input from communities on ways to improve underperforming schools before receiving federal money.

The Education Department also wants to devote an additional $50 million next year to promote English learning. Part of that will be used for research and development of ``dual-language immersion,'' a bilingual approach gaining favor among many linguists.

Dual-immersion is a shift from the direction of states such as California, Arizona and Massachusetts, where voters have largely banned bilingual classes. On a broader level, some 30 states and numerous localities have passed laws making English the official language, a move that critics say will lead to more cuts in bilingual programs.

The debate has splintered the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided 5-4 with Arizona last year in saying the federal government should not supervise the state's spending for teaching students who don't speak English.

Doris Chiquito, 30, of Miami, who was born in the U.S. to Ecuadorean parents, is among those who would like their children to value Latino culture. Chiquito, fluent in English, says she enrolled her 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter in bilingual classes so they would also speak Spanish and not ``feel ashamed of being Hispanic.''

Her daughter, Ariana Gonzlez, says she likes having classes in both languages.

``It helps me learn Spanish, and I know how to talk with my grandparents,'' she said. ``I like that I get to speak English because some of my friends don't know Spanish, and then I talk to them in English.''

The AP-Univision Poll was conducted from March 11 to June 3, 2010, by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Using a sample of Latino households provided by The Nielsen Company, 1,521 Latinos were interviewed in English and Spanish, mostly by mail but also by telephone and the Internet. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Stanford University's participation in the study was made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Associated Press Polling Director Trevor Tompson and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report. Armario reported from Miami.

Online: AP-Univision Poll: http://surveys.ap.org/


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