Change in bilingual education supported

Plan aimed at moving to English more quickly

FORT WORTH – Proposed changes in the bilingual education program should help students perform better on English and Spanish tests by setting guidelines for teachers and providing them with training and materials, school officials said last night.

The school board was to consider a $ 3.9 million overhaul of the bilingual program at its monthly meeting. The changes, proposed by Superintendent Thomas Tocco, are aimed at moving Spanish-speaking students into classrooms taught in English by the end of the third grade and at providing intensive English instruction for older students.

Immigrants from Mexico make up the fastest-growing segment of the Fort Worth school population, school officials have reported.

Some local bilingual teachers and Hispanic interest groups said they support changes in the bilingual program as long as the focus is on academics and not just English-language instruction.

“Yes, learning the language is important. It should be a bridge,” said Juan Rangel, chairman of the United Hispanic Council of Tarrant County. “But learning the skills is crucial.

“They need to target the middle schools where we have the biggest dropout rate because students don’t have the reading, writing and math skills,” he said.

Students with limited English skills do not do well on the English or Spanish version of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.

“It’s time for a change,” said Rufino Mendoza, chairman of the Mexican-American Educational Advisory Committee. “We’ve had 25 years of this bilingual program, and kids are still suffering academically, have a high dropout rate and are not as successful on TAAS as they should be. “

Tocco said his proposal is an attempt to strike a balance between English immersion and the existing bilingual program.

Most people think Tocco is trying to improve the 25-year-old program and not dismantle it, as is proposed in California, said Leticia Chavez, vice president of the Fort Worth Association of Bilingual Educators.

Just the same, some teachers feel threatened, she said.

“Teacher morale is low,” Chavez said. “They’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs, change schools, get new bosses. They don’t know where they will end up. “

Tocco’s plan would eliminate fourth- and fifth-grade bilingual classes. Those teachers would fill bilingual teacher shortages in lower grades or be moved to new language centers for immigrants who enter in the fourth grade or higher.

Students in kindergarten through third grade would be divided into those who speak only Spanish and those with some English skills. The Spanish-only speakers would be put in what is being called a “full bilingual” program with 80 percent of instruction in Spanish in kindergarten, progressing to 90 percent in English by the end of third grade. The students would then move into English-as-a-second-language classes (ESL).

Those with some English skills would be placed in a “modified bilingual” program and start with 80 percent of instruction in English.

Immigrants entering the school district in those grades would be placed in a new language center offering intensive ESL instruction for a minimum of two years and a maximum of three, said Juanita Silva, interim bilingual director.

Language centers for middle school and high school students would be expanded, and a second International Newcomer Academy would be established.

All students with limited English skills would be expected to learn English well enough to leave the ESL program within six years.

Tocco’s proposal tries to ensure that English is taught in bilingual classes from the beginning. The plan would establish tests to monitor students’ progress in English and Spanish.

Chavez said she doesn’t like the idea of separating the monolingual Spanish grade-schoolers from their English-speaking peers.

“They need to interact,” said Chavez, who added that the teacher organization has not yet formed a position on the overall plan.

Rangel also raised concerns about using temporary buildings to house the learning centers and the International Newcomers Academy.

“Why are we throwing money into temporary buildings for a permanent problem? ” Rangel said.

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