WASHINGTON — 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 kindergarten through 12th grade.
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 isolate — a 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."
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The nationwide poll, also sponsored by The Nielsen Co. and Stanford University, found the vast majority of Latinos — 78 percent — had children enrolled in K-12 classes that were taught mostly in English, compared with 3 percent in Spanish.
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 fam- ilies. 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.
Civil rights being reviewed
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 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 course work. "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 one in five people in the United States speaks 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 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 La- tinos 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 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 United States 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."
The poll was conducted March 11 to June 3 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. A sample of 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.