DISD reviews its program for bilingual pupils

5 public meetings planned as non-English needs grow

The number of Dallas students who speak little or no English has been climbing steadily this decade and is expected next school year to comprise almost a quarter of the district’s total enrollment.

In the midst of this growth, the Dallas Independent School District is reviewing the way it teaches these students. With the information, Dallas will revise its Bilingual/English as a Second Language efforts. A series of public meetings have been scheduled in the next two weeks to hear comments. Tellingly, the five meetings will be conducted in Spanish. A similar meeting last week with the district’s Asian advisory committee included portions in Vietnamese.

School officials say the meetings are part of the district’s regular evaluation of all academic programs. But the review comes as the swelling non-English-speaking population is forcing the district to pay more attention to the programs.

“I’ve wondered and I’m worried about DISD getting ready,” said Alfred Carrizales, a parent who is chairman of the district’s Latino Education Committee.

He said that bilingual education has been discussed for years, but it has never seemed to be a district priority.

Dallas school superintendent Chad Woolery said a review of the bilingual program will ensure teachers are using the best approach with students.

“There’s not special alarm in this area. We’re just trying to review,” he said.

But he acknowledges the program, which is required by state law, can be controversial.

“It evokes questions of a philosophical basis,” Mr. Woolery said. “You will find people pro and con from the very beginning, whether you should even have it or not.”

The district’s director of bilingual education said many of his programs still have a low profile outside the schools.

“I don’t think people have an understanding of the number of students involved,” said John Martinez, the district’s director of bilingual programs.

This school year, the number of students served by bilingual programs has reached 33,000. It has been growing by 7 percent to 10 percent a year and is expected to involve more than 35,000 students next school year.

About 95 percent of the students with limited English ability are Spanish speaking. The next-largest group of students speaks Vietnamese.

The growth is not concentrated in one part of Dallas. It has come throughout the school district, with the population growing in many schools in the Pleasant Grove area and in North Dallas.

The district considers 73 of its elementary schools to be Priority 1 schools because they have more than 100 students with limited English ability.

The Dallas growth is mirrored nationally.

U.S. Education Department figures show 3.5 million students with limited English skills. In some urban California school districts, the majority of students are not native English-speakers.

Dr. Eugene Garcia, director of the federal office of bilingual education and minority language affairs, said school districts generally start paying attention to bilingual programs as the non-English-speaking population mushrooms.

“It will become a front-burner issue as the demographics push it,” Dr. Garcia said.

In Dallas, Dr. Martinez’s staff has surveyed the district’s principals and bilingual teachers about shortcomings in the existing program.

He said he already knows some of the problems: A continuing shortage of bilingual teachers means many students are taught by instructors who don’t know their languages. In addition, a hodgepodge curriculum means there’s little uniformity between schools and grade levels.

Some educators also disagree on the proper approach to teaching these students.

The district has tried to tackle its teacher shortage by offering bilingual teachers a $ 1,500 annual bonus. Still, Dr. Martinez said the district is short by 200 bilingual teachers, and it has no bilingual classes for Vietnamese students. The district has long had a problem finding certified bilingual teachers.

The shortage has meant that many young students are taught in English as a Second Language classes, where they may not understand the teacher.

Educators say research shows students – particularly those with little formal education – do better if they are first taught in bilingual classes, which allow students to learn academic skills in their native language as they are eased into English.

“It does us no good to do math totally in English for a first-grader when a child knows nothing but Spanish,” said Gloria Gutierrez, principal of Gabe Allen Elementary School in the Ledbetter area.

“You need a foundation to build on.”

The principal of Stockard Middle School, Leticia Garza, has a different philosophy.

She said by the time students are out of elementary school, they should be in classes where primarily English is spoken – so-called immersion classes.

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