‘You think that you’re dumb’: Graduates of AZ’s English immersion model say it was traumatizing
As the Arizona Department of Education continues its fight to teach English language learners through full immersion, the department’s deputy chief said that she’s never heard that the learning model contributes to mental health issues for students.
But several former students who learned English that way told the Arizona Mirror that their experience with full English language immersion contributed to an educational experience that felt isolating, confusing and sometimes even depressing. It also left them lagging behind their peers in other subjects.
Reyna Montoya, founder and CEO of Aliento, an immigration advocacy group, was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and moved to Chandler with her family in 2003 when she was 13 years old. At the time, she knew almost no English, but Montoya had been an exceptional student in Mexico, where she excelled in math and participated in poetry contests.
But at Gilbert Junior High, she was pulled out of regular classes for four hours each day to learn English, and some of her peers in mainstream classes treated her like she was less-than because of it.
“I would cry myself to sleep,” she said. She would pray to God, saying, “I’m trying but I can’t.” She also had intrusive thoughts like, “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
Now, she said she worries about how that same model might impact students today. And she’s not alone, as at least one study has shown that the model can contribute to students’ psychological distress.
“I think my biggest concern is their self-confidence and the mental health toll it takes,” Montoya said. “At that age, you’re trying to fit in. You’re trying to belong, to be part of something. And by doing that, you’re segregating kids and you’re pointing out that, those kids here, you’re the dumb kids — and they internalize that.”
Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Margaret Garcia Dugan, who helped to author Proposition 203, the voter-approved law requiring English learners in K-12 schools to learn through full English immersion, said she and her nine siblings — along with 160 first cousins — all learned English through that model with zero mental health impacts.
“I’ve never heard of anybody having mental anguish,” Dugan told the Mirror. “I think this is ideological.”
Dugan, who grew up in Bisbee and whose first language was Spanish, taught students in sheltered English immersion classes at Glendale High School, and said all the students who she promoted to mainstream classrooms were “very, very appreciative that they came to this country to learn English, and they did.”
But Dugan’s time teaching English as a second language ended more than 35 years ago, when the stigma surrounding mental health issues limited students from seeking help or talking about their problems in a way that doesn’t exist at the same level today.
Dugan taught English and English as a second language at Glendale High School from 1974 to 1986. She went on to serve as the school’s principal from 1992 to 2002, when she joined Republican Tom Horne’s administration at the Department of Education. (Horne was first elected superintendent of public instruction in 2002 and re-elected in 2006. He was again elected to the post in 2022.)
Dugan added that, if parents don’t want their children to participate in ELL, they can opt out and just send their child straight to a mainstream classroom. But unless that child’s school has adopted a learning model that includes additional support for English learners in mainstream classrooms, she said that students would essentially be learning by “sink or swim.”
That’s exactly what happened to Erick Garcia, the digital manager at Aliento, who moved to Mesa from a small town in the state of Vera Cruz, Mexico, when he was 11 years old.
Garcia started out attending English as a second language classes in fifth grade. But once he began attending Stapley Junior High, he opted out of those classes because there weren’t enough English learner students at the school and he would have had to split his days at another junior high to continue them.
Even though Garcia went on to become a first-generation college graduate, he said he still sometimes struggles to find the right words in English.
“I kind of got lost,” Garcia said, adding that, although he soon understood conversational English, comprehending more complex subjects in his textbooks was a challenge.
Even though Garcia still managed to get As and Bs, the experience took a mental toll.
“It’s frustrating because, at that age, you second guess yourself and think that you’re dumb,” he said.
You’re segregating kids and you’re pointing out that, those kids here, you’re the dumb kids — and they internalize that.
Garcia credits his high school Russian teacher for inviting him to take advantage of Westwood High School’s career center, where he learned the importance of SAT scores and extracurricular activities for helping him make it to college.
He worries that if current ESL students are pulled out of their regular classes for four hours each day to learn English, it will limit their opportunities.
Montoya experienced just that, when a teacher recommended she take an honors math class that wouldn’t work with her schedule because of her ELL classes. It also prevented her from taking dance classes, which she had loved participating in when she lived in Mexico.
But Dugan and her boss, Horne, are adamant that full English immersion is the best way for ELL students to learn the language quickly, which they say is essential for them to be successful in the United States.
They say that students should graduate from the program within a year, but that is often not the case.
No one at the Department of Education spoke with current ELL students or recent graduates before pushing for a re-institution of the full English immersion model, Dugan told the Mirror. Instead they looked at the “abysmal” rate — 4% to 6% — at which Dugan said students were learning English through dual language models, compared to 9% for all learning models in 2022
But an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Justice Department found that, from 2006 to 2012, thousands of Arizona students were incorrectly promoted from ELL programs, or never identified as English learners in the first place, because of changes in scoring that the Arizona Department of Education made to English proficiency tests.
And Horne is looking to make those tests easier again, saying that they were made too difficult in response to the investigation.
On Sept. 7, Horne filed a lawsuit asking a Maricopa County Superior Court judge to settle a disagreement between his office and Gov. Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes, both Democrats, over the interpretation of the state law governing English language learning in K-12 schools.
Horne argues that a 50-50 dual-language immersion learning model, used in as many as 26 school districts across the state, violates the law that he and Dugan championed and that passed through a voter referendum more than 20 years ago. The law requires ELL students to be taught English in English-only classrooms.
Hobbs and Mayes say a law passed in 2019 by Arizona legislators, which ordered the State Board of Education to develop alternative, research-based teaching methods to the full English immersion curriculum, is protected by the authority of the board.
Many Arizona districts now use one of those four alternative models, including dual-language immersion, in which students are taught half the day in English and the other half in another language, usually their native language.
“For some reason, people think they know what’s best for Hispanic children and how to learn English,” Dugan told the Mirror. “I’m just so tired of people trying to tell Hispanics how they best can learn. And to me, that, really, is very insulting.”
I’ve never heard of anybody having mental anguish. I think this is ideological.
Georgina Monsalvo, organizing director at Stand for Children, an education equity group that campaigned for the 2019 changes in English language learning models, learned through the English immersion model herself, as did her son.
Although Monsalvo and her son were both born in the U.S., they each grew up speaking primarily Spanish at home.
When Monsalvo’s son, 13-year-old Jorge, was learning through the full-English immersion model, he wondered why he was segregated from his peers and he fell behind in science and math, Monsalvo told the Mirror.
After the law change in 2019, Jorge is now pulled out of regular classes for only an hour each day to learn English, and has additional help in core classes, through an individualized education program.
“I could see his attitude changing,” Monsalvo said.
She could tell he was feeling more integrated in his classes, and even though he is still not proficient in English, his grades have improved.
“The difference has been night and day,” she said.
Monsalvo added that she saw the impact that the ELI model had on her own classmates, who were often treated like they were special education students, she said.
“Most of my friends that were with me didn’t even go on to college,” she said. “They felt like it was a waste of time.”
Monsalvo said she often wonders how their academic outcomes might have been different if there were more inclusive learning models back then. Monsalvo graduated from Douglas High School in 2010.
“It makes me really sad,” Monsalvo said of her friends in ELI classes. “They always thought they were worth less.”
Dugan told the Mirror that she believes the backers of dual-language learning models don’t actually want Latinos to learn English, and added that those models also segregate students from native English speakers. But Montoya countered that most immigrants, and especially children, are hungry to learn English. She just believes there is a better way.
Montoya is not an advocate of dual-language programs, but believes in a more inclusive model that fuses dual language learning with integration of English learners into mainstream classrooms, with added support.
As a former classroom teacher, Montoya said she sees a huge disconnect between what elected officials think instruction and acquisition of a new language should look like versus what is good practice, not only from an academic acquisition perspective, but also for the social and emotional development of the students.
“These policies are not really rooted in research and best practices, and, more importantly, human decency,” she said.
Dugan told the Mirror that none of her students ever fell behind in other subjects because of their four hours outside of regular classes each day, when using the ELI model.
She said she believes that lack of motivation and skipping school was the only reason that any of those students fell behind, and adamantly denied that either of those things might be due to mental health issues caused by the immersion programs.
“The kids that come to school on a regular basis do well,” she said, adding that, when students do well in school, it helps their self esteem.
“Our Hispanic kids are very smart and they can learn English, that’s all. And there’s so much proof of that,” Dugan said. “I want people to understand they don’t need to give us, I guess, a low standard and a low expectation.”