Bilingual Education on Cutting Edge---Literally

The numbers grow, but the budget shrinks

Even though the number of bilingual children in Seattle schools is rising every year, school officials have recommended cutting money for the programs those students need.

That has confused and angered supporters of bilingual education who know educators are in a panic over losing students to private schools and the suburbs.

The bilingual population is propping up Seattle’s enrollment figures:

— Districtwide enrollment dropped by more than 1,600 this year from 1988-89 and is expected to decrease again in the fall, from 41,344 to 40,200.

— But the number of students enrolled in bilingual programs, now about 3,800, is growing 17 to 20 percent a year. Counting children who have not entered or have graduated from transitional programs, bilingual students number 8,000 – 20 percent of total enrollment.

Despite those figures, Superintendent William Kendrick has recommended that the School Board cut $ 500,000 from the $ 6 million bilingual budget for 1990-91.

Bilingual-education supporters – parents, educators and ethnic groups – have orchestrated a battle to shoot down Kendrick’s proposal as unfair and illogical. As of yesterday, supporters had written district administrators 719 letters opposing the cuts. They’ve also called board members and promoted their cause at school events.

“Historically, we’ve felt they’ve picked on bilingual education because bilingual education hasn’t had the powerful champion” of lobbyists that back other programs such as music and athletics, said Tony Espejo of the city’s Human Rights Commission.

Indeed, most parents with children involved in the program don’t speak English and rarely speak up against cuts.

Children in the program, who arrive in the United States knowing little or no English, are taught subjects in their native languages while learning English as a second language, commonly called ESL. As they pick up more English skills, they gradually move into a full schedule of “mainstream” classes, with other English-speaking students.

Seattle schools deal with more than 70 different languages, including Spanish, Japanese and Chinese and less-common languages of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Teachers say, it is the loosening of emigration laws in Eastern-bloc countries that has caused a great deal of the increase in the bilingual population.

Kendrick’s proposed cut would help eliminate a $ 4.2 million budget shortfall for next school year, a gap that results because enrollment drives state school financing. The district’s total proposed budget is $ 237 million.

The bilingual cuts would eliminate 6.7 teaching positions (out of 95) and 10 full-time teachers’-aide positions (out of 82). Ten more aide positions are being eliminated because of federal cuts, says Mary Kyle, supervisor of transitional bilingual education for the district.

Kendrick said he couldn’t avoid proposing the cuts because of the district’s severe financial problems. When he released his recommended budget last month, he said he expected special-interest groups to reel.

But even state schools Superintendent Judith Billings has entered the fight, criticizing the cut at a recent CityClub luncheon. Imagine, Billings said, going to a Spanish-speaking school where teachers think they can teach you the language simply by speaking loudly and enunciating slowly.

“What you’re doing with that is you’re dooming them to failure,” she said.

Already, bilingual classes are so crowded at one school, South Shore Middle School, that immigrant students are taking two physical-education courses or other double-elective combinations. For a while this year, some students had to take three electives while English-speaking students took only one.

If Kendrick’s cuts go through, orientation centers for non-English-speaking students will have to turn away 70 students every semester next school year. The centers now serve 380 per semester.

“What is the justification for cutting money when the population is rising?” asked Elsabet Legesse at a town meeting earlier this month. Legesse works for the district’s bilingual program as a data analyst, and her children – her family is Ethiopian – were once enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

In a letter urging advocates to fight the cuts, the Bilingual Community Coalition argued that the program has taken more than its share of reductions during recent financial crises. The letter listed $ 85,000 cut last year, $ 308,000 in ’87 and $ 198,000 in ’86.

Bilingual teachers, angered and confused, are to meet today with Deputy Superintendent Ben Soria to discuss the cuts.

School Board President Marilyn Smith said she knew of no board members who are proposing to reinstate the bilingual money. But it’s early, she said; the board hasn’t finished reviewing the budget and has until July 25 to revise and adopt it.

But at least one board member has defended the cut.

“It isn’t across the board,” Kenneth Eastlack said at a recent town meeting. “It doesn’t cut everything and everybody.”

Legesse’s reply was simple: Try telling that to students who will be shut out of the program.

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