Language 'immersion' not likely in Texas, officials say

Following in California’s footsteps, Arizona voters decided last week to eliminate bilingual education in favor of full immersion programs.

But that’s not likely to happen in Texas, state and local officials say.

“Texas is very different from California and Arizona,” said Elaine Martinez,
bilingual curriculum specialist with the Texas Education Agency.

“And we have a wonderful governor [George W. Bush] who is pro-bilingual.”

Texas’ 61st Legislature, meeting in 1969, passed the state’s first bilingual education bill after repealing the “English Only” statute of 1918.

That statute made it illegal for teachers and administrators to use any language other than English except in foreign language classes.

The new bill allowed – but did not require – school districts to provide bilingual instruction through grade six, according to a report by the Texas Center for Bilingual/ESL Education. However, it did not provide funding for such curriculum.

By 1970, however, federal grants were supporting 27 bilingual programs in Texas school districts. In 1996-1997, 13 percent of students in all Texas schools were receiving language services. And the number has increased yearly, center records show.

Rita Latimer, a Cuban immigrant and principal of the primarily bilingual RISD Academy, recalls what it was like trying to learn in the earlier environment.

“Immersion is very painful for the child and very difficult. Not everyone can survive it,” she said. “Bilingual education helps ease the transition.”

Proponents of immersion programs say recently released test scores for California, which dismantled bilingual education programs two years ago,
show improvement.

Ronald Unz of a group called English for the Children told the Providence
(R.I.) Journal-Bulletin that average reading scores for California’s second-grade immigrants have gone up 9 percent and math scores 14 percent.

Others say it’s a matter of who is interpreting the scores and how.

“Districts that are claiming to have made headway didn’t have good programs to begin with,” said Terry Greene, Richardson Independent School District’s coordinating director of language and literacy.

Regardless, the results have boosted reformers around the country, including those in Massachusetts, who are hoping to present a similar initiative in 2002.

If anyone is contemplating a similar effort in Texas, they haven’t made it public yet.

“I don’t foresee anything like that happening anytime in the near future,”
Ms. Martinez said.

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