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Teachers' accents stir civil rights debate in Arizona

PHOENIX — When Guadalupe V. Aguayo puts her hand to her heart, faces the American flag in the corner of her classroom and leads her second-graders in the Pledge of Allegiance, she says some of the words — like allegiance, republic and indivisible — with a noticeable accent.

When she tells her mostly Latino students to finish their breakfasts, quiet down, pull out their homework or capitalize the first letter in a sentence, the same accent can be heard.

Aguayo is a veteran teacher in the Creighton Elementary School District in central Phoenix as well an immigrant from northern Mexico who learned English as an adult. Confronted about her accent by her school principal several years ago, Aguayo took a college acting class, saw a speech pathologist and consulted with an accent reduction specialist, none of which transformed her speech.

As Aguayo has struggled, though, something else has changed. Arizona, after almost a decade of sending monitors to classrooms across the state to check on teachers' articulation, recently made a sharp about-face on the issue. A federal investigation of possible civil rights violations prompted the state to call off its accent police.

"To my knowledge, we have not seen policies like this in other states," Russlynn H. Ali, the assistant federal secretary of education for civil rights, said in an interview. She called it "good news" that Arizona had altered its policy.

Silverio Garcia Jr., who runs a barebones organization called the Civil Rights Center out of his Phoenix-area home to challenge discrimination, was the one who pressed the accent issue. In May 2010, he filed a class-action complaint with the federal Department of Education alleging that teachers had been unfairly transferred and students denied educations with those teachers. The Justice Department joined the inquiry, but federal investigators closed Garcia's complaint in late August after the state agreed to alter its policies.

"This was one culture telling another culture that you're not speaking correctly," Garcia said.

The state says its teacher reviews were in line with the decade-old federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that only instructors fluent in English teach students who are learning English. State education officials say that accents were never the focus of their monitoring.

"It was a repeated pattern of misuse of the language or mispronunciation of the language that we were looking for," said Andrew LeFevre, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. "It's critically important that teachers act as models when it comes to language."

But the federal review found that the state had written up teachers for pronouncing "the" as "da," "another" as "anuder" and "lives here" as "leeves here."

The teachers who were found to have strong accents were not fired, but their school districts were required to work with them to improve their speech. That was the case even when the local school officials had already assessed the teachers as fluent in English.

"It's a form of discrimination," said Araceli Martinez-Olguin, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco, who is representing Aguayo in a discrimination complaint. "People hear an accent and think it means something."

John Huppenthal, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, has sent mixed signals about the state's position on accents. In a recent article in The Arizona Republic, he said he would seek authority from the Legislature to allow state monitoring of teachers' fluency in English.

But Huppenthal's spokesman, LeFevre, said last week that Huppenthal made that comment before he had all the information on the matter and that he had no plans to pursue the issue with lawmakers in the next legislative session.

In the Creighton Elementary School District, where about a dozen teachers attracted the attention of the state monitors, an accent reduction specialist, Andy Krieger, was brought in from Canada last year to address the state's concerns.

Krieger, who has taught actors, business executives and others from around the world to speak American English, said some of the teachers had what he considered heavy accents.

"I don't think there was one who didn't need the help," he said. "If 10 is really bad, some were seven or eight, and some were probably 10s."

Of the several dozen who took his class, he said, five or six made striking progress. But only one teacher, he said, took advantage of his offer to follow up later over Skype.

"Many of these teachers are fine teachers and have other great qualities," said Susan Lugo, the director of human resources at the Creighton district, where 95 percent of the students are members of minority groups and about a third of the students speak languages other than English.

Lugo declined to comment on Aguayo's case.

It was Aguayo's principal and not the state monitors who first questioned her accent and suggested that she join Krieger's class, Aguayo said. Because she was told that state policy forbade her to teach students who were learning English, she has filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"I have the same credentials as everyone else, and I don't think it's fair that I'm being singled out," Aguayo said, adding that her school has teachers with a variety of regional American accents. "I know I have an accent. It's been hard to get rid of it. I think I'll always have it."