'I can speak Spanish, and ... I can speak English.'

Need for bilingual education is growing fast



No matter what language you use, the number of non-English-speaking students in Tulsa-area public schools is growing in a hurry.

Tulsa Public Schools opened four new classrooms on Monday to handle the influx, and two more new rooms are on the horizon.

The number of limited-English-speaking students in Jenks has more than tripled in the past three years. In the Union school district, the number of such students has jumped from 180 to more than 250 since the spring.

In response, districts are bringing in new teachers, new teachers’ aides, new materials and new rooms. And, experts say, the trend should continue for years.

“We have a lot of challenges because we get so many students so fast,” said Tulsa Public Schools language coordinator Tucky Rogers. “And children are coming
to us with a much wider range of backgrounds.” The increase is
hardly unique to the Tulsa area. The 1995-96 school year saw 27,191 limited-English-speaking students enrolled in Oklahoma public schools. Last year the number was 35,575, and the tally keeps escalating.

And as in the rest of the state, the bulk of the students are Hispanic. In the 1990s alone, the Hispanic population in Oklahoma grew 58.6 percent, from 86,162 to 136,634. In Tulsa, a healthy economy has meant more opportunities — many in construction and other blue-collar jobs, food service and small business ownership — for Hispanics.

Union’s Director of Student Services Jackie White said the Hispanic students are “the fastest-growing population we have.”

The numbers bring with them obvious classroom challenges, as well as ongoing dialogue, in Oklahoma and across the nation, about the best way to educate non- English-speaking students.

Should students learn in both languages and gradually ease into English, or should they dive head-first into English in hopes of quickly coexisting with English-speaking students?

Nationally, some experts favor the transitional bilingual education philosophy, which involves teaching students some subjects in their native tongue while they’re being taught intensive English. Others favor a “sink-or-swim” immersion program, in which students are taught all their classes
in simplified English. Critics have argued that
bilingual education keeps students in a cycle of native language dependency that prohibits fully learning the English language. Proponents argue that bilingual education prevents cultural alienation and rightfully preserves students’ native tongues.

In Oklahoma, where there is no statewide policy on bilingual education, it’s up to each district to decide what works best. And around Tulsa, many districts are employing a compromise between the two popular schools of thought.

In Tulsa, Union and Jenks, students spend a portion of their day, depending upon their needs, in an English as a Second Language “pull-out” classroom where they receive content-embedded intensive English instruction. In other words, they’re taught English and core subjects simultaneously. They also spend time each day in the regular English-speaking classroom, often sitting next to a bilingual student who serves as a translator.

In Broken Arrow, limited-English-speaking students are thrown into the
classroom under the straightforward immersion program. “It works very well
with elementary
students,” fine arts coordinator Jo Ellen Clow said. “But it becomes a little more difficult at the middle school and high school level.”

In Tulsa, Union and Jenks, the goal is to eventually “exit” the students from their hybrid approach, putting them exclusively in the English-speaking classroom.

National research suggests that the transition should take five to seven years. Others say it should happen within the first year. Locally, officials don’t bide by any standing rule. The students will move when their teachers feel they’re ready, whether it’s four months or four years.

Adding to the challenges are the different circumstances of each student. Some have never been in a school, let alone spoken English, and are not literate in their own language.

“The kids have to learn how to function in a regular classroom and gain that vocabulary in addition,” she said.

Kendall-Whittier Elementary School student Veronica Ceja, 9, is one who made it through. Now in an English-speaking room, she still gets a little help from
some bilingual students seated nearby. “It’s a little
bit hard, but it’s easy, too,” she said on a recent afternoon. “Now, when I go to Mexico, I can speak Spanish, and when I’m here I can speak English.” Jasen Corns, World staff writer, can be reached at
581-8369 or via e- mail at jasen.corns@tulsaworld.com.

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