*Translation: The majority of Oklahomans can’t read this. They only see words that mean nothing.
Tulsa school officials are mainstreaming Spanish-speaking students into regular classes with good success despite funding and staffing problems associated with the district’s English-immersion program. Francisco Anaya, a 13-year-old child of Mexican immigrants, tested out of English-immersion classes after just eight months at an eastside middle school. He’s ahead of most Spanish-speaking students, who leave the program for good after about three years, Tulsa school officials said.
”I like all my classes,” Francisco said with limited assistance from a school interpreter. ”I’m being treated good.”
Francisco is a seventh-grader at Foster Middle School, 12121 E. 21st St.
Foster school officials said he may have progressed faster than other Spanish-speaking students because his mother speaks some English.
Francisco said regular classes are difficult, but ”I am holding my own.”
The Anaya family migrated to the United States from Mexico last year. Their son is one of 325 Spanish-speaking students making their way in the English-immersion program at Tulsa Public Schools. The 25-year-old program,
called English as a Second Language, was developed originally for Asian students moving here with their parents after fleeing Vietnam in the 1970s. In English immersion, non-English speaking students are taught in English with some bilingual assistance.
About 36 percent of the Latino students who were enrolled last year in English-immersion classes in first through eighth grades in Tulsa schools ”tested out” of such classes and were mainstreamed into regular course work, said Tucky Roger, the coordinator of the ESL program for the district.
Roger said most Spanish-speaking youngsters are functional in English after about 18 months and gain proficiency in the language after five years.
”Many of these kids go on to be honor students,” Roger said. ”They go to college or enter the work force. They are productive citizens.”
David Gervino, a Tulsa police officer who has worked with immigrants, said Hispanic parents recognize the importance of education. ”Most of the parents of these
kids never had a chance for a quality education, so they know the opportunity being offered to them,” he said. ”Schools may not have meant much to them, but they have enough sense to know that it means everything to their children in America.”
Lorena Medrana, 12, came to the United States from Mexico speaking no English. After a few months in Tulsa schools’ English-immersion program, she can talk with limited English about her likes and dislikes. ”Math is
hard,” she said beaming. ”I like gym class the most.” Joel Martinez is a 13-year-old from Guanajuato, Mexico, who was a mystery to Foster Middle School officials for awhile. Joel is a silent kid with dark eyes and straight black hair combed tight across his head.
”He doesn’t speak enough English yet for us to know how well he’ll do,” Gervino said. ”The teachers have a pretty good feeling about him. They think he was a good student in Mexico; they just need to figure out what he knows.”
Roosevelt Elementary School teacher Jeanette Johnson thought it was odd to teach Spanish-speaking students only in English until she saw it work, she said.
”When they asked me to do this three years ago, I said, ‘What do you mean teaching kids who can’t speak English in English?’
”But I found out it’s just like teaching (English-speaking) kids,” Johnson said. ”Give them attention and repetition, and it works.”
Tulsa school officials will be the first to admit that their English-immersion program is not perfect.
Schools officials, led by Superintendent John Thompson, retooled ESL last year in an effort to offer classes at satellite schools that are closer to Hispanic and Asian families. The program had been centralized at Fulton Teacher Resource Center, 8906 E. 34th St.
Decentralizing the program meant an end for ESL kindergarten, since it was not practical to offer it to Spanish-speaking preschoolers who were scattered across the Tulsa district, Roger said.
The elimination of ESL kindergarten raised concerns among Hispanic leaders, who, for the most part, have been patient with Tulsa school officials as they struggle to meet the educational needs of Latino kids.
”The younger you begin teaching a child English and basic topics, the easier it is for the child and the school system,” said Yolanda Charney, a Mexican-American and member of a school district task force that was organized last year to study Hispanic student issues. ”It was not wise to drop ESL kindergarten. We hope it can be restored as quickly as possible.”
Roger said the district is seeking a $ 150,000 federal grant to strengthen the ESL program, which could mean a revisit of the kindergarten issue. School officials should know sometime this year if their grant application has been accepted, she said.
Tulsa school officials this year will spend an estimated $ 453,000 on English instruction for 325 Spanish-speaking students. The funds also cover instruction costs for 48 other non-English pupils from Russia, Vietnam and other countries.
The wave of Latino kids enrolling in Tulsa Public Schools since 1990 has increased Hispanic enrollment by 175 percent. More than 2,700 Hispanic students are enrolled this year in area schools. The change in Tulsa ESL has
caught several Tulsa teachers off guard, said one school official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Many teachers are unprepared to handle the mainstreaming of Hispanic kids who speak limited English into their classes. Several teachers struggled through, making the best of the situation, the official said.
Only 11 teachers and administrators out of 2,900 Tulsa educators attended a school-sponsored clinic last summer on how to help Latino students succeed once they test out of ESL classes. With the decentralization of Latino kids into more Tulsa schools, it will become critical for more teachers to attend such workshops, Roger said.
The shortage of teachers and aides at Kendall-Whittier Elementary School has forced school officials there to put Spanish-speaking kids on a ”waiting list” to attend classes, ESL instructor Linda Hoste said. ”It’s not something the district wanted to do, but we really are doing the best we can.”
Kendall-Whittier, a sparkling new elementary school that cost $ 8 million, is the centerpiece of one of Tulsa’s Hispanic communities east of downtown.
Easily 35 percent of the 1,000 students at Kendall-Whittier, 2601 E. Fifth Place, are Hispanic.
Roger said school officials each semester must ”guess” where Spanish-speaking students will enroll, because new families are moving to the district in scores. To compound the problem, many students are removed from school with little or no notice from parents. These inconsistencies
can make curriculum planning and personnel assignments difficult, Roger said.
”We plan as best as we can, but you never know until a few weeks after the school year has begun where a large concentration of Spanish-speaking students might be,” she said.
Tulsa’s Hispanic leaders have not sought bilingual education, which would require the hiring of several Spanish-speaking teachers who would instruct in Spanish. Such programs have been controversial elsewhere.
”That’s not practical, and we understand that,” Charney said. ”And besides, learning English is the way to go to assimilate into American society.”
Thompson, who has met regularly with the Hispanic task force, said the hiring of bilingual assistants or the development of a volunteer bilingual network should be a priority. Initiating the plan could be hindered by hiring guidelines and background checks.
”I think we all agree that this is a learning process,” Thompson said at one task force meeting. ”We can do better, and we will.”