SERIES: Language Lessons
Learning to Live in a Multilingual Connecticut
One of an occasional series
Hartford kindergarten teacher Carmen DeJesus asked a student where she could see “estrellas,” or stars. The 5-year-old girl scrunched her eyes as she strained to think, then poked her arm up over her head.
But she said nothing.
DeJesus asked again: “Donde?” Where?
Bethzaida jabbed her tiny index finger into the air. She knew where to find them, but she didn’t know the word “cielo,” or sky.
DeJesus and other kindergarten teachers say they are seeing a disturbing
trend: children entering kindergarten unable to speak in full sentences. Some make baby noises. Others mutter a single catch word to identify anything.
The problem raises particular questions for children from Spanish-speaking homes, children such as Bethzaida, who can’t express themselves in either Spanish or English — adding a new wrinkle to the already fierce debate over bilingual education. Some local and national educators question the benefits of putting Hispanic children into standard bilingual education programs in which they are taught almost exclusively in Spanish.
The traditional philosophy of bilingual programs has been that children will be able to keep pace academically with their peers if they are taught in their first language while slowly acquiring a second one.
But a cadre of educators is challenging that view — especially when it comes to kindergarten children who have limited language skills to begin with. They argue that intensive English instruction will help those students succeed in school.
“I know it’s not a very popular view politically,” said Fred M. Heckinger, senior adviser to the Carnegie Corp., a philanthropic organization in New York City. “But I think you would make more progress with them” in English kindergarten classes.
Adnelly Marichal, coordinator of bilingual education for Hartford Public Schools, argues strongly that these children need the bilingual program. The “sink or swim” method of immersing Hispanic children in English classes alienates them from school, she said.
“Everybody brings a language to school,” Marichal said. “Even if the child is non-verbal, they have been breathing and living for five years. They haven’t been in an isolation camp. Imagine the double burden of having to learn in English.”
The controversy is expected to intensify in the coming months as legislators debate Gov. John G. Rowland’s proposal to give local communities more flexibility in offering alternative bilingual programs.
School districts now are mandated to provide a separate program when a school has 20 students who speak a language other than English. Rowland is proposing to fold bilingual education money into one education grant and eliminate the 20-student mandate.
‘In English, nothing’
In the past, children with language disabilities have been placed in special-education programs, said George DeGeorge, a bilingual education consultant for the state Department of Education.
“Now we have to ask ‘has the child just not had the opportunity'” to learn, DeGeorge said. “We do have a lot of kids” in that situation, he said.
State educators say they are hearing from more urban kindergarten teachers about the problem, but don’t keep track of it officially. The Connecticut Commission on Children reports that one of every four children in the state starts kindergarten ill-prepared for formal learning. That means those children have either poor motor skills or poor health and, often, undeveloped language skills. Educators blame it on poverty and a lack of stimulation at home.
At Hartford’s Barnard Brown Elementary School, where DeJesus teaches, all the kindergarten children have poor language skills, said Principal Miriam Morales Taylor. About one-quarter of those children, most of whom are Hispanic, have severe problems, she said.
“It was really a shock to me,” said Taylor, who became principal last year after working at Hartford High School. “We would ask mom to read to them, but mom couldn’t read either.”
At Burns Elementary School across town, Principal Maria Acosta said she is seeing about the same numbers — one-quarter of her 100 kindergarten children, mostly Hispanic, have severely delayed language skills.
But to Acosta, even if a child’s vocabulary is extremely stunted, they understand something in Spanish.
“In English, they have nothing,” Acosta said.
Acosta and other bilingual educators subscribe to a theory developed by Canadian researcher Jim Cummins, which also has become the basis of the government-funded bilingual education programs. Cummins developed the theory more than a decade ago that children must have strong first-language skills before they can learn a second language.
“If you don’t have an academic language,” Marichal said, “what do you have to transfer?”
Taylor isn’t convinced. Most Hispanic children born in Hartford are coming to school with a mixture of both languages. And as limited as they are in each, they can easily learn English, she said.
“At home, they’re not being helped,” Taylor said. “The sooner they start developing English skills, the better.”
Taylor often finds a major obstacle to English programs: parents. They fear losing contact with their children if the youngsters learn a language that they haven’t learned. Many parents also want their children to maintain and develop the Spanish language, she said.
Taylor’s skepticism about traditional bilingual education has few supporters among Hartford educators, but she does find support nationally.
“What more do we do in kindergarten than develop language skills?” said Rosalie Pedalino Porter, a former kindergarten bilingual teacher in the Springfield public schools and an ardent national critic of the bilingual program.
The author of “Forked Tongue, the Politics of Bilingual Education,” Porter rejects the argument that children should strengthen their first language before learning a second language — particularly when children haven’t fully developed either language.
“I think that is the most demeaning, rotten, paternalistic theory developed by radical advocates who want to keep their own from making it in the American mainstream,” Porter said.
Marichal, Hartford’s chief bilingual administrator, found those comments “ridiculous.” If bilingual supporters wanted to keep their own from making it, she said, they would be recommending that many more Hispanic children be in bilingual education programs. In fact, only about 33 percent of Hispanic children in Hartford schools, or 4,000 students, are enrolled in bilingual programs, she said.
But the real problem, says New Britain bilingual teacher Ray Lugo, is not the number of children enrolled, but the number who are staying in bilingual programs. It takes children across the state an average of four years to transfer out of a bilingual program; in Hartford that number climbs to 6.8 years, state statistics show.
“There is a tremendous amount of isolation under the guise of doing something good for children,” said Lugo, who fears that makes them more susceptible to joining gangs.
Learning two languages
Despite the polarization of the issue, some schools have found a middle ground. A rural elementary school in Windham teaches bilingual kindergarten students and English-dominant children together.
“I don’t see any reason why children can’t learn the two languages simultaneously,” said Jean Romano, director of Windham’s bilingual education program.
Romano and her staff started “Companeros,” or companions, last year; kindergarten students are taught in Spanish one week, and in English the next. A similar model has been used by other schools in the state, including one in New London.
Students know which week it is, depending upon how their teacher, Miriam Reynoso, greets them.
“Good morning,” Reynoso said slowly at the start of a recent class.
A young girl sidled up to her and told her in Spanish what had happened over the weekend.
“Estaba nevando,” it was snowing, the girl said.
Reynoso’s eyes widened and she repeated the news in English.
Now the students had no doubt which language would be used that week.
Reynoso, who is fluent in both languages, emphasized her instructions with gestures. Sometimes, students picked up on those gestures and helped their classmates understand.
When Reynoso asked students to take a seat for a lesson, one English student whispered to a Spanish classmate, “sientate,” which she had remembered from the Spanish week.
Generally, the students in Companeros start with strong language skills, Romano said. But she would also advocate a two-way bilingual program for students with severely limited language skills.
“We’re adding something to both sets of kids,” she said. “We’re not taking anything away from either kid.”
At Barnard Brown, DeJesus teaches as much English as she can. But still, she said, some students have to be held back. Bethzaida’s older brother is repeating the kindergarten class. Bethzaida probably will stay back too, DeJesus said.
Five months into the school year, she sits in the back of the class, learning to trace her name. After the third time of copying the letters, she sighs and casts her eyes to the ceiling.
The teaching assistant sits by her side, prodding her along.
“Arriba de abajo,” the assistant says, telling her to start at the top of the letter and trace downward.
DeJesus has as tough a time reaching some parents. “They have VCRs and Nintendo,” she said. “They put their kids in a room with it and tell them not to bother them.”
She started a class for parents to teach them what they should do at home. She tells them to identify objects, such as a toaster, or a pencil, so children will learn what they are called. Some children don’t know the words for eyes, ears or mouth, she said.
The Commission on Children offers various parenting progams and emphasizes the basics: “They need to talk to children,” said Pat Estill, director of special projects for the state’s Commission on Children.
“Tell them about the sky,” Estill said, “how it’s hope.”
CORRECTION-DATE: February 28, 1995
A story on Page 1 Monday about bilingual education misspelled the name of Fred M. Hechinger, senior adviser to the Carnegie Corp. of New York, a philanthropic organization.