HISD trustees vote to change bilingual policy

Students encouraged to become 'proficient in multiple languages'

Houston school trustees approved a bilingual-education policy Thursday despite pleas from legislators and others to delay the controversial vote.

The new Houston Independent School District policy, approved 6-2, emphasizes learning English “as rapidly as individually possible” but encourages “all students to graduate proficient in multiple languages.”

“I do think it is important to improve bilingual education as we move into a new millennium, and this is what this policy does,” said Trustee Gabriel Vasquez, who co-authored the proposal.

Jeff Shadwick, also a co-author, said he believes the policy “reaches the best middle ground” between those who believe in English immersion and those who believe children should spend years learning academic subjects in their native language. Under the policy, non-English-speaking children in the bilingual-education program would be moved into English as soon as they can demonstrate proficiency in English reading.

Trustees Olga Gallegos and Esther Campos voted against the policy, saying its proponents had not spent enough time getting community input.

“Bilingual education is sacred to the Hispanic community in Houston, for that matter in Texas,” Gallegos said, adding that Spanish scores show that the current program works.

The vote came after nearly 40 people aired their views on the issue.

Six legislators pleaded with the board to give the issue further study, and concerns were raised by representatives of Hispanic organizations as well as Dallas school board member Kathleen Leos.

“We all know that children, to be successful in this country and this state and each of our districts, must acquire English,” Leos said. “The issue isn’t the what; the issue is the how.”

Several said they fear the new policy endangers the bilingual education program, which first teaches children in their native language while progressively giving them instruction in English. Some researchers say it takes five to seven years for students who speak another language to be academically proficient in English.

“We have fought for bilingual education in this country for 30 years, and we still don’t have it perfect, but we are working on it,” said Rick Dovalina, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

At the same time, others called for an end to bilingual education, or at least found serious fault with it.

Bobby Moon, whose parents immigrated from China, said he is glad he did not have to first learn in Chinese before learning to speak English.

“Parents from non-English-speaking homes must realize that it is very difficult for their kids to learn in English if their kids’ little minds are already crammed with trying to learn in another language besides English,” he said.

Former bilingual-education teacher Terice Nevares-Richards said she saw firsthand how Hispanic students in the program are isolated and segregated from their classmates.

“Let’s face it, bilingual education, as it is now, is a slow track,” she said. “It holds kids back.”

The leaders of the Congress of Houston Teachers, the Houston Classroom Teachers Association and the HISD Council of Parent-Teacher Associations endorsed the board’s new policy, saying they thought it made good educational sense.

“I’m a teacher; I can tell you the desire of many of the Spanish-speaking students is to rapidly read and speak English,” said Michael Verdone, president of the Congress of Houston Teachers.

This is the first time HISD has adopted a board policy on bilingual education.

Board President Laurie Bricker said the trustees began discussing the need for a bilingual-education policy at a retreat in January 1998.

Shadwick and Vasquez started crafting the policy in January and first presented it to the board in June. But the June vote was delayed after some Hispanic legislators protested that the proposal was “an advocacy vehicle for the English-only movement.”

Vasquez and Shadwick later met with college professors and other members of the Latino Educational Policy Council to revise and clarify some wording in the policy, which contains a mission statement, five core beliefs and seven goals.

The goals include:

Comply with all federal and state bilingual mandates.

Increase student achievement.

Establish English reading proficiency as a standard for transitioning students into all-English classes.

Implement a standardized curricula and assessment program for all multilingual programs.

Increase parental choice and involvement.

Increase the number of bilingual teachers in HISD.

Encourage fluency in two languages as a goal for all students.

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