Last week I visited a second- grade bilingual class at the Clark School in the North End of Hartford. The teacher, an earnest and hard-working woman named Victoria Vidal, taught a lesson in Spanish about animals that live in the water.

Afterward, I had a chance to speak to the students. I assumed they spoke only Spanish and asked them what they were doing for the weekend:”should be upside down Que van hacer en el fin de semana?”

“We’re going to the beach,” said one.

“We’re going to the park,” said another. “I’m going to New York,” said a third.

All in English.

Here is the problem with the way the city runs bilingual education. Except for a 30-minute English lesson, these children are being taught all day in Spanish. If they understand English, why aren’t they getting more of it?

I examined the bilingual program in 1990 and visited it again during this school year. I’ve been to bilingual classes in nine schools.

The program has improved in some schools, where innovative teachers and administrators — nearly all of them bilingual Latino women — have developed new strategies to teach more English sooner and move students into “mainstream” or regular classes.

But at other schools, kids still meander through the program, learning English slowly and not always thoroughly. The classes often have children with many different levels of English ability, forcing teachers to jump from one group to the next or stay in the native language. The bilingual teachers sometimes have an uneven command of English.

The program also suffers from lack of resources and the constant movement of students in and out of school districts and the city.

It’s time for more innovation. The city ought to try immersion programs, for example. But the impetus for change may have to come from the Hispanic community, where bilingual education is an emotional and political issue.

Adnelly Marichal, director of the program, said she thinks the city’s program works for most children, but agreed that some schools do it better than others and that some kids stay in it too long. She said she too would like to see new programs, but questioned whether any money could be found for them.

It might help to agree on the purpose of the program. Marichal believes, as I do, that the program is there to teach English to minority language students and move them into regular English classes. She said she sometimes gets resistance on this from members of the Hispanic community, who think the program should maintain the children’s Spanish.

That is wrong. Children who plan to stay here must master standard English, as well as their course materials, to have a chance for higher education and good jobs.

The only thing we should be talking about is the best way to do it. Bilingual education was a response to countless cases of discrimination against language minority children across the country. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1974 and federal and state laws led to the creation of bilingual education programs, such as Hartford’s, that feature native language instruction.

Connecticut’s bilingual law says the purpose of non-English instruction “shall be to enable the children to become proficient in English.”

Most people believe some kind of bilingual education is a good idea. But what kind of program? The method adopted in Hartford and many other cities in the 1970s is called transitional bilingual education, or TBE.

In TBE, students are taught their subjects in their native language while taking English lessons. Teachers gradually switch the content areas to English as the student’s English improves and eventually move the student into regular English classes.

The idea is that kids won’t fall behind in other subjects as they learn English.

TBE was an unproven theory when it started and there’s still no hard evidence that it’s the best way to teach a second language, said Rosalie Pedalino Porter of Amherst, Mass., a former bilingual teacher and administrator and author of “Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education.”

Despite this, said Porter, TBE has become the one true faith of many bilingual educators. Proponents of TBE say it preserves culture, aids self-esteem and preserves the native language.

Porter disputes all of this. She says there’s little chance of losing either the culture or native language by learning English, and that self-esteem comes from achievement, which is difficult in this country without the ability to speak English.

Hartford has pretty much stuck with the TBE model. Hartford has the largest bilingual program in the state, with about 5,200 students, about a fifth of the city’s public school enrollment. The city offers classes in Vietnamese, Laotian, Italian, Portuguese and Polish, but the vast majority — about 92 percent — of the students in the program speak Spanish.

As I visited schools this year, I found evidence that the program worked for some kids and didn’t work for others.

For example, at a sophomore bilingual class at Hartford Public High School, I found a 16-year-old youngster named Pedro Gomez who was born in Hartford and has been in bilingual classes since kindergarten. Why, I asked.

“Bilingual is easier,” he shrugged.

Staying in the bilingual program too long can lead to a weak grasp of English.

“I see the results. Kids who start intensive English too late get behind and it’s very hard to catch up,” said Lorene Lugo, a reading consultant at Hartford Public High School. Porter said it is a question of “time on task.” Children who spend most of their time using their native language will gain proficiency in that language and not English, she said.

This seems to be supported by an in-house evaluation of Hartford’s program in 1992, which concluded that “considerable academic English development occurs after students complete the . . . program and enter mainstream classes.”

Why does the program not work for some kids?

Over the years, Hartford has hired a number of bilingual teachers with weak English skills. As a result, they couldn’t very well teach in English. A good number of these teachers have improved their English on the job.

Also, the TBE method teaches at four different levels of English, levels 1-4, before a student is “transitioned” into regular classes. The different levels have different books and lessons. But what often happens is that a teacher ends up with several levels of students in the same class.

Fabio Ayala teaches a fifth-grade bilingual class at the Wish School. He has three levels of bilingual students, plus a couple of special education bilingual students. “Throw in a behavior problem or two, and you have your hands full,” he said. Ayala, a bright and articulate teacher, said he has to teach his groups to work independently so he can work with them one at a time.

Critics of the TBE method also say it often isolates children in bilingual classes, denying them the benefit of interacting with other children.

The bilingual program shares some problems with the rest of the system. Ayala, for example, has 13- year-old spelling books and doesn’t have enough of them.

The worst problem is mobility. Some schools lose more than half their students during the year, because their families move across town or, often, back to Puerto Rico. As Quirk Middle School Principal Mel Carreras said, the best program in the world won’t reach a kid who isn’t in school.

Yet, many children overcome all of these difficulties.

Ofelia Roman, a senior at Bulkeley High School, has done so well as a bilingual student that she has mastered English and now teaches algebra in two languages to new immigrants in the school’s new arrival center. She’s going to college to become a bilingual teacher.

There will be more like her. At the McDonough and Sanchez elementary schools, for example, kids are getting all the English they can handle and are moving quickly into mainstream classes. “Parents are getting more knowledgeable about the program and asking better questions,” said Mary Alice McNaboe, vice-principal of McDonough.

At McDonough, a terrific third- grade teacher named Carmen Hubbard mainstreamed 10 of 14 kids last year and thinks she’ll have almost that many this year. And lest we forget, it’s quite an achievement to learn two languages by the third grade.

Sarah Bowman, principal of the Sanchez School, has initiated a number of new programs, such as “sister classes,” of bilingual and monolingual classes and teams of bilingual and monolingual teachers working together to expose her Spanish speakers to more English, and vice-versa.

She and some other principals are starting programs to teach parents English, both as self-help for the parents and home support for the kids.

There are other kinds of bilingual programs. One of the most intriguing is called structured immersion, where instead of getting most classes in native language, young children get most of their instruction in English.

Immersion has worked extremely well as a means of teaching French to English-speaking youngsters in Quebec province. One of the most interesting immersion experiments in this country is in El Paso, Texas.

El Paso, like Hartford, is a bilingual city where kids pick up a good deal of English from the environment, the sounds of the streets. El Paso officials felt they weren’t capitalizing on this natural language acquisition, so in 1984 started an immersion program, teaching children in English they could understand from the first day of school, and then building on it.

The program was monitored for several years by the Read Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit involved in the study of English literacy. Results were compared to those in the city’s TBE program, which is much like Hartford’s. By the sixth grade, 99 percent of the immersion students were in mainstream classes, while only 65 percent of the TBE students had been mainstreamed. Tests showed students from both types of class had about the same understanding of course content.

Another promising idea is two- way or dual language immersion programs, in which English and non-English speakers are placed in the same class and taught in a way that they learn each other’s language.

The research is inconsistent and contradictory on the best bilingual methods; some researchers swear by TBE and others think immersion or other models are the answer. Porter thinks kids should get as much English as possible as early as possible, but thinks school systems should try a variety of different programs to see what works best.

To do that in Hartford might require a sea change in the Hispanic community. Many community leaders have been extremely protective of the bilingual program as is, and have taken any criticism of it as a personal affront. Perhaps this is understandable; they’ve had to put up with the mean-spirited and pointless “English Only” movement over the years. But bilingual education is the law and is here to stay. The better it works, the better for the kids.



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