GRAPEVINE — While the rest of her fifth-grade class was taking Spanish classes mandated by the Grapevine-Colleyville school district curriculum, Ashleigh Allison sat in the Timberline Elementary School library writing a report about France.Ashleigh and her mother, Leigh Allison, say teaching elementary school Spanish only makes life easier for Hispanic immigrants in the community who do not learn or speak English.
And Ashleigh shouldn’t be forced to conform, they say.”She wants to be that one voice that forces them to learn English,” Allison said. “We’re not going to turn America into a bilingual country to accommodate you.”
The Allisons’ stance reflects a larger national debate about immigration and the rising number of Spanish speakers in the United States.
“On the one hand, we’re all for teaching foreign languages,” said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of Virginia-based ProEnglish, which works to preserve English as the common language of the U.S.
“But it would be naive to think that the country does not face the growing threat of bilingualism because of the massive influx of mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants. They’re coming in faster than the country can absorb them.”
Language of choice
Texas’ curriculum requires a school district to offer, “to the extent possible, languages other than English” for elementary- and middle school-age children.
Most districts offer some level of language instruction, said Monica Martinez, curriculum director with the Texas Education Agency. And for most, Spanish is the language of choice. It’s easier to learn and speak than many other languages, and school districts can hire more experienced Spanish teachers than teachers of other languages.
“But it could be French. It could be American Sign Language,” Martinez said. “It’s left to local district discretion to determine what they offer.”
‘Best for kids’
Grapevine-Colleyville elementary students must take Spanish two days a week in nine-week rotations with art classes. It has been a part of the district’s curriculum for 15 years, said district spokeswoman Megan Overman.
“The whole intent is to give students a foundation that we believe broadens their experiences and prepares them for success in our diverse world,” Overman said. “You’re not going to get language acquisition out of elementary Spanish.”
Overman said there has been “little or no objection” to the curriculum from parents or the community. “Our goal is to try to do what we believe is best for kids,” she said.
Views of bilingualism
McAlpin said he worries that in the long run, forcing Spanish on students, and in effect promoting bilingualism, will harm the country.
“Every place in the world where societies have been divided about language, there have been conflicts that many times lead to violence or antagonism that we have so far been able to avoid in this country,” he said. “Why break the successful mold of the melting pot?”
Rudy Rodriguez, retired director of the bilingual education program at the University of North Texas, said exposure to foreign languages at an early age helps children become more comfortable interacting with people from other countries and cultures.
He also said that there are benefits to the “bilingual brain” and that learning a second language actually improves a child’s brain function.
“It is a wonderful, enriching experience for children to have the opportunity to learn a language other than English,” he said. “We’re moving very rapidly into a global economy where boundaries between countries are becoming less distinct.”
Allison said she and her daughter aren’t anti-immigration. They are pro-English language for immigrants.
“This is not saying, you cannot speak your native tongue,” Allison said. “Grasp your tradition and your culture. But when you are outside your front door, you must speak English. We have to understand you.”
Ashleigh said she knew the day that she enrolled at Timberline that she didn’t want to take the required Spanish classes.
“There was a lot of Spanish kids and not a lot of other kinds of kids,” she said.
Her mother said: “We were very much the minority. She couldn’t understand anybody and really felt isolated.”
The percentage of Hispanic students at Timberline has increased from 13 percent in 1996 to 54 percent of the school’s 706 students last school year.
At the beginning of November, Allison e-mailed the counselor saying she was “not interested” in Ashleigh’s taking Spanish. Timberline Principal Cody Spielmann replied that Spanish is required by the curriculum and that there were no other options.
“Ashleigh feels the course would be a waste of her time since she has no aspirations in the future to have a career requiring bilingual talents,” Allison wrote to the principal, “nor does she feel compelled to accommodate those who live in our country who refuse to learn the primary and current native tongue of English.”
Allison wanted her daughter to be allowed to study in the library or to take a different foreign language. Allison then appealed to district administrators but got the same response: Ashleigh had to go to class.
Allison kept her daughter out of Spanish class for three weeks, sending her to school an hour late twice a week with a note stating that she was absent because of a “moral objection” to the class.
At the end of December, Allison filed a grievance with the Grapevine-Colleyville school board. But in a pre-hearing meeting, she and Deputy Superintendent Jim Chadwell reached a compromise to allow Ashleigh to study in the library and write a report on a country of her choice.
She learned about the government and food of France and tried to teach herself some common French phrases, but without a teacher, the language is difficult to master. “I was kind of bored because there wasn’t anybody else there,” she said.
The curriculum rotation has moved from Spanish to art class at Timberline. But before the year is out, Ashleigh will be faced with the same situation.
Does she plan to take Spanish then? Absolutely not.
Allison said she is scheduled to meet next week with Spielmann and other district administrators to hammer out a better plan for Ashleigh’s alternative class. Instruction in any other language would be acceptable, she said.
Allison suggests an online language course, such as Rosetta Stone. She’ll even pay for it. And she hopes that the discussion yields an option for other students who oppose learning Spanish.
“If we’re going to do this for Ashleigh, there needs to be a policy change,” Allison said.
Overman said the district is willing to work with parents to make decisions about educating their children. While parents shouldn’t expect an overhaul of the district’s world languages curriculum, the district will review it.