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The debate over how to teach English to children who speak another language at home is a complicated one for academics — but it’s anything but academic for Susana Garcia.

Garcia came to San Diego when she was 8 years old and learned English and Spanish in bilingual classes. Her two older daughters had bilingual classes too, but the program disappeared from their school, Cesar Chavez Elementary, before her youngest son started class.

Her son can still speak both languages — but as Garcia puts it, “he didn’t have the chance to be as bilingual as my girls did.” He can read only a little Spanish and can’t write it.

Garcia started fighting for bilingual education and now leads a parent group at Chavez. We sat down to talk with her about why she believes in learning two languages.

How did you feel about your son not being bilingual?

For me as a Hispanic parent, it’s embarrassing, to be honest. I think we should be proud of our language and we should keep it. We know that when you have two languages, more doors open in the future. And I feel frustrated. I can teach him, but it’s not the same as sending him to school. It’s not academic.

Why did things change at Chavez? Was it because of the California law that limited bilingual education?

No. Every principal has their own ideas. We used to have a principal who had the bilingual program. Then we had another principal who didn’t believe in the bilingual program. She thought English was better and would make their grades go up. So she got rid of it.

But we as parents could tell that it affected our kids. They felt kind of lost. Every administration has different ideas. But it seems like they don’t realize how it affects the students.

What do you say to people like that principal who says it’s better for them to just learn English?

Knowing two languages or more is better than one. And when they have the language they’re born with, it helps them to learn the other language better and faster. It’s a big transition for them. When they have both languages, it helps them understand more of whatever they’re doing.

What will it take to recreate the program?

We’re still struggling with that, actually. They just announced to the teachers that we’d have a bilingual program next year. But there are still obstacles.

There’s money to get books and materials. What we had before is mostly gone because it’s been so many years. But it’s mainly having the administration support the program itself. It doesn’t matter how much money you have — if the administration doesn’t support it, it’s not going to happen.

Even if your kid is fluent in English, they can be in a bilingual program if they want to. But when you try to do that they say, “No, you don’t need a bilingual program because you know English.” We tend to as Hispanics — I think it’s something in our culture — when someone in authority tells us something, we tend to believe in it. If a principal tells you something, we tend to believe that.

We’re not saying we don’t want our kids to speak English. We want them to speak two languages or more. I’ve heard a principal say, “If you want your children to go to college, they have to speak English only.” And that’s not true. In high school you have to learn a language! So why do they tell us in elementary school that our kids should only speak one language to make it to college?

Has having the new policy about biliteracy changed things?

Definitely. I believe in the district now. But parents who are not as much involved still doubt the district, because of the experiences we’d had in the past.

Like what kind of experiences?

You knock on so many doors when there’s harassment happening to kids or parents. That went on in our school. They wouldn’t help us. Luis Acle was the president of the school board. This lady said, “What can I do? I think she’s doing things against my kids.” And he said, “Well, what do you expect? If they can’t get to you they’ll go after your kids. If you don’t like it, go to another school.”

Now that we have this board, it makes a difference. They treat us like people. They listen to us as parents. We’re starting to trust it. But how long can it last? You know how the board changes.

I hope it’s not too personal to ask about this, but when the school board president mentioned you in a recent speech, he said that you’re in your second bout with cancer. This must be really important for you, to keep fighting while that’s going on.

Yes.

Why is it so important for you? You’ve been fighting for bilingual education how long — for six years?

I think with my cancer, I’m fighting even more for that. We’re not a rich family. I can’t leave money for my kids. If I’m not going to be out there for my kids — I don’t know but that’s what comes to my mind — at least I can try to help so that they can get a better education. We want them to be better than what we are. For me, that’s even stronger now.

— Interview conducted and edited by EMILY ALPERT

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