Bilingual Bias?

Latino Parents Accuse Paterson Schools of Discrimination

When Jennifer Ruiz moved to Paterson from Texas four years ago,
she was placed in a third-grade bilingual class, in which she learned math, science, and social studies in both English and Spanish.

A year later, Jennifer was moved to an all-English class in School 8, where she struggled.

“I had a hard time. I almost stayed left back,”recalled Jennifer,
13, who 1 said she earned C’s, D’s, and F’s that year. Making an argument for one-language education, she said,”If I would have started in English, it would have all been better.”

But the teen’s mother, Angelica Ruiz, said although her daughter did have a hard time adjusting to an all-English class, she still favors bilingual education. Ruiz said that’s”because they learn both languages,”adding that her daughter now earns Bs in most of her classes.

Ruiz’s and Jennifer’s views on the subject reflect the national debate on whether bilingual education should continue.

Opponents argue that bilingual education holds students back from learning English quickly, because it makes children dependent on their native language. They also argue that time spent teaching Spanish interferes with time spent learning other subjects.

But supporters say bilingual education assists students who have a poor command of English by teaching academic subjects in their native language so they don’t fall behind.

The national debate recently surfaced in Paterson, with the issue eliciting a complaint.

A letter signed by about 50 Latino parents was sent to the U.S.
Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The parents allege that the Paterson school district has discriminated against their children by placing them in bilingual education classes solely because of their Spanish surnames.

The parents said that many of their children are fluent in English,
but have been in bilingual classes for too many years. Furthermore, the parents say, the bilingual classes delay their children from joining regular classes.

Paterson has 3,700 students in bilingual and English as a Second Language classes this year. Statewide there are 52,890 students in such classes, with a majority exiting the program after two or three years.

“We feel that placing our children in so-called bilingual classes without consideration of their individual need for bilingual education or a process for moving to regular classes when English fluency is demonstrated has harmed them,”reads the complaint.”Bilingual education in Paterson for too many children is a dead end.”

Iris LeDuc-Currie, director of the school district’s bilingual and English as a Second 1 Language department, rejected the complaint as unfounded. The Office of Civil Rights is evaluating the complaint, said Rodger Murphey, a spokesman in Washington, D.C.. One side issue that has flared in the controversy is that some parents who signed the complaint said they didn’t initiate the grievance and didn’t mean to take a firm stand against the program. Instead, they claim they were approached by someone from the Catholic Family and Community Services Multilingual Department, which serves as an advocate for immigrants, who asked them how they felt about bilingual classes.

Amparo Acevedo, whose daughter is in a bilingual program and who signed the complaint, said although she did have some concerns about the program, she doesn’t want it eliminated.

“I don’t have a problem with bilingual education,”she said.”Yes,
I had some questions about it, but that’s all.”

Marianna Thompson, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, denied that any parent was duped into signing the complaint,
saying Catholic Family is an advocate for parents.

“No agency of the Catholic Church would ever coerce anyone to signing anything,”she said.

For years, parents, educators, and legislators across the nation have argued over bilingual education.

When bilingual classes were developed in the 1960s, they were meant to help youngsters progress in academic subjects in their native language while they learned English in a separate class. Although bilingual education was planned as a transitional program, opponents argue that students frequently remain in such programs for too long.

Ron Unz, a California software entrepreneur who has battled bilingual education, said the concerns raised by Paterson parents,
including that their children linger in bilingual classes and that they have fallen behind their monolingual peers, is nothing new. He said those worries have been expressed by parents in other states, where bilingual education has been replaced with English immersion programs.

“Bilingual education on all evidence I’ve seen has never worked in America in a large scale,”Unz said.”I would think New Jersey would do very well to get rid of its bilingual program.”

To date, there has been no widescale move to 1 eliminate the program in the state, which is home to many new immigrants.

Some parents such as Denisse and Ramon Muriel agree and have declined to let their children enter bilingual programs. The Muriels arrived in Paterson from Ecuador in September with their 6-year-old son,
Allan. When the Muriels enrolled Allan at School 8 they asked that he be placed in a monolingual English class.

“We knew if he was going to receive classes in Spanish and English he was going to get confused,”said Denisse Muriel, whose son reads and counts in both English and Spanish.”We knew he would not lose his Spanish, because we speak to him in Spanish at home.”

But parents who choose bilingual programs for their children say their way works, too.

Angelica Ruiz, whose children all were born in the United States,
said Jennifer, her oldest son, Manuel, and 11-year-old daughter,
Veronica, who all had four years of bilingual education, can speak and write in English and Spanish. But her youngest daughter, Stephanie, who was not placed in bilingual education, is limited in her Spanish.

“When we go to Mexico she has a hard time communicating with her grandparents and other family members,”Ruiz said.

Two years ago, after much debate and with the help of Unz,
California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227, which largely removed bilingual education from public schools. Under the law, most students with limited English are now placed in one-year English-immersion programs.

Despite fears from bilingual education supporters, results released last year from standardized test scores in California show that the initiative seems to be working.

“Very quickly the test scores of over 1 million students rose dramatically,”Unz said.”Those districts that most completely got rid of it doubled their immigrant test scores, and that really is remarkable.” In November, Arizona voters approved Proposition 203, a measure similar to the California initiative. Although the California plan reduced the number of children in bilingual education, the Arizona one is expected to end bilingual education, because, unlike in California,
it makes it very difficult for parents to seek waivers from English immersion classes.

Similar legislation has been debated in other states, including Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York.

In New Jersey, school districts are required to implement a bilingual education program whenever there are 20 or more pupils in the district who speak the same language and are classified as limited English proficient (LEP). If there are 10 or more students who share a native language in a school district, the state requires that an ESL program be provided.

In Paterson, LeDuc-Currie said students are first placed in bilingual education programs after parents complete a home language survey. She said if parents indicate that a child speaks more of a non-English language at home, then a teacher assesses the child using an English proficiency test called the Maculaitis. She said if the child scores below the cutoff, which is set by the state, the child is placed in bilingual education.

Within 10 days a letter, written in both English and Spanish, is sent to the child’s home outlining why they were placed in bilingual classes and informing parents that they can waive the child’s placement,
she said. 1

Elena Alzate, whose two sons attend bilingual classes at School 10,
said she doesn’t remember her children being tested and said she didn’t know that she could decline bilingual services. Although she favors bilingual education, she said her sons, Samuel, 7 and Daniel, 6, have spoken English since they were in nursery school and could succeed in a monolingual program. Her sons have been in bilingual classes since kindergarten.

“Some people say that it is better for them to be in English class,
because they learn more,”she said.”I like them to be in bilingual,
because they don’t forget their Spanish.”

Staff Writer Monsy Alvarado’s e-mail address is alvarado(at)

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