At first glance, this border town of 22,000 has all the makings for social and educational disaster: high gang activity, high drug and alcohol abuse, 25 to 30 percent unemployment, and low income - only $12,000 per family, on average.
But because of innovative policies set in motion nearly 30 years ago, the small district's 11 public schools have become a national model of success in bilingual education - sending 93 percent of a recent high school class to college. Now, with countrywide debate swirling over moves to ditch bilingual programs and immerse students in English only - fueled, in part, by a California ballot initiative - Calexico's long-term success has moved to the front of the debate.
"If bilingual education can be made to work in this town, it can work anywhere in California or America," says Gloria Celaya, principal of Main Elementary School here.
The California ballot measure pressing the issue is Proposition 227, a citizens' initiative that would end bilingual-education programs in Calexico and across the nation's most-populous state. Under the initiative, the 1.4 million students with limited English proficiency (LEP) - more than half the national total - would be placed in regular classrooms after only one year of English language instruction.
With the considerable funds of initiative sponsor and wealthy California businessman Ron Unz behind it, Prop. 227 quickly grabbed steady media coverage with its message that the state's 30-year experiment with bilingual education has failed. But with the vote roughly two months away, the anti-Prop. 227 forces are joining together to fight back. And as voters take a closer look at the fine print, poll results have begun to shift just as they did in the final months before other precedent-setting initiatives here.
At a late February gathering in Dallas of 20 of the largest Hispanic organizations in the United States, members of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) urged California voters to reject the measure as "dangerous and extreme."
"History has proven that English-only instruction harms Hispanic students in several ways," says Arturo Vargas, chairman of NHLA. "It makes the acquisition of English difficult and frustrating. It unnecessarily delays academic subject matter learning. It prevents parents with limited-English skills from actively participating in their children's schooling. And it sharply increases the rate at which Hispanic students drop out."
Instead of throwing out the many varied programs of bilingual education that have not worked, Prop. 227 opponents ask, why not model programs after the successes of Calexico? Indeed, 80 percent of the 7,000 students in Calexico are LEP, yet the Hispanic dropout rate there is half the state average.
Main reasons for success
A tour of the 650-student Main elementary facility reveals a long list of reasons for success: highly trained bilingual teachers; involvement by parents, teachers, and the broader community; and widespread programs to deal with student's emotional concerns and social skills.
The Calexico success story began with several public and private grants in 1969. Using those grants, the district has been able to incorporate such ideas as a school-within-a-school program, where teachers and students are allowed to break off into smaller groups to maintain steadier, more personal relationships.
Study courses are also thematic, so that art, math, reading, and science, for example, might all be tied to a single topic. Students are graded not by how they have memorized facts, but by how they have learned to apply them. Instead of performing math computation, for instance, students would be asked to design a house floor plan.
Perhaps the most successful technique used in Calexico, according to Emily Palacio, assistant superintendent, is "linguistically appropriate instruction." Simply put, this is placing every level of student alongside appropriate classmates and teachers so that the most can be demanded of them. Easier said than done, the practice requires a broad range of available classroom set-ups, and skilled, attentive teachers.
"There is nothing we do here that can't be cloned elsewhere," says Ivette Michele Imperial-Gonzales, a fifth-grade teacher who has worked at bilingual programs in other districts. "In other California schools, because of lack of organization, bilingual programs are in chaos. Here, there is commitment, clear goals, and the expectation of success."
Yet Prop. 227 supporters counter that their districts are in chaos because of the dire lack of able bilingual teachers. And unlike Calexico, they add, many classrooms across the state are dealing with dozens of foreign speakers - Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Chinese - in addition to Spanish. They also cite a 95 percent failure rate among those students working their way through the state's bilingual programs.
But besides holding up Calexico as an example of what works, Prop. 227 foes are trying to expose what they feel are misguided logic and assumptions of the initiative. Such efforts are coming in forms ranging from grass-roots efforts at local parents groups to full-scale mailings.
"This [initiative] may come under the category of another kooky California attempt to put something on a citizen's ballot that doesn't belong there," says Jim Lyons, director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. Those in the educational field should decide what is best for students, he says, noting that not a single educational, teacher school board, or administrative body supports it.
"This measure is unbelievably prescriptive in deciding programs that are more properly the province of local educators," says Mr. Lyons. "When voters begin to take a closer look as to what this means for their kids, they will be thinking twice."