Spring Branch Superintendent Hal Guthrie thought his proposal reasonable: expedite English instruction for Spanish-speaking students so they could move more quickly into regular classes.

But the reaction was explosive. A riled Hispanic community questioned whether the school district was stopping their children from being fully literate in two languages, fully functional in two cultures. And what of children needing more time to learn English? Would the district let them fall between the cracks so they would become part of a growing underclass?

Spring Branch is just the latest flash point in a bilingual-education debate that is sweeping the nation. Frustrated over statistics showing high failure and dropout rates among Hispanic children, many districts – Houston among them – are beginning to take a critical look at the way their schools are educating non-English-speaking students.

For years, schools in Texas and elsewhere have based their instructional programs on research that says children learn best if they are taught academic subjects in their native language and slowly moved into English. Some researchers say the average transition time is about five years, and schools typically offer bilingual education through the fifth grade.

But California set a new course a year ago with its brash initiative to immerse children speaking other languages into a one-year English program. Since then, other school districts, such as Chicago, have taken similar though less radical steps to limit bilingual education.

Fort Worth has a year-old policy that, like the Spring Branch proposal, would move children into English classes at the end of the third grade. For some time, Aldine has been transitioning children out of bilingual education at the end of the fourth grade.

Houston school officials say it is too soon to say how, or whether, they might tinker with their bilingual-education program. But already, some principals are gearing for a change.

At Garcia Elementary, an exemplary-rated school in north Houston, principal Adriana Castro already is pushing Spanish-speaking children into English-speaking classrooms more quickly.

“We kind of know it is coming,” she said. “Our mandate as educators, whether I’m a principal or a teacher, is to teach kids to speak English because they live in a country where English is spoken.”

About half of Garcia’s 786 students speak a limited amount of English. As those students begin preschool or kindergarten, they learn to read in their native language but are given English instruction as well.

Progressively, the children get more and more of their lessons in English. By the end of third grade, Castro said, about 75 percent are moved totally into courses taught in English. By fifth grade, the one remaining bilingual class is actually taught in English with backup assistance in Spanish.

For last year’s Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, Garcia Elementary tested 41 percent of its third-graders and 37 percent of its fourth-graders on the Spanish version of the exam. In the fifth grade, no student took the test in Spanish, though 20 were exempted from the test because of their poor English skills.

This year, Castro said, more children in all grades will be tested in English. In the fifth-grade class for limited-English students, 20 will be tested in English and four recent immigrants will be tested in Spanish. No children will be exempted.

“We need to know how well our program is doing,” Castro said, “and testing is the way to do it.”

State law requires every school district with 20 or more limited-English students to provide bilingual education or a special language program. Students can be transferred to an all-English program only after they reach the 40th percentile on a standardized test in English and meet other evaluation standards.

Because of the state’s ethnic makeup, nearly all bilingual programs in Texas are for Spanish-speaking students. For other foreign speakers, there are classes called English as a Second Language, which are taught in English but with teachers who are trained to help with language deficits. These immersion-style classes also are available for children who leave the bilingual program but still need help in English.

Guthrie’s proposal in Spring Branch would require students who have been continuously enrolled in bilingual education since at least the second grade to move into an English-speaking class – or at least an English as a Second Language class – in the fourth grade. The district would still maintain bilingual-education classes in the fourth and fifth grades, but only for newly arriving immigrants.

Guthrie said his proposal is not driven by a social agenda. Rather, he is concerned that too many students get to middle school and still cannot speak fluent English. He also questions why 69 percent of the fourth-graders who have been in bilingual-education classes since kindergarten have to be tested in Spanish.

“My issue,” said Guthrie, “is the expectations for the kids. The expectations are too low. They are not introducing them to English fast enough in sufficient quantities for them to learn it.”

But Guthrie’s policy is drawing fire from bilingual teachers, Hispanic activists and parents who say the district has only had a structured bilingual program for the past two years and officials aren’t giving it time to see if it works.

“It’s going to hurt the kids, it really is,” said Higinia Torres-Karna, a University of St. Thomas education professor who lives in Spring Branch. “If they shorten the time (that children are in bilingual education), sure, they may accelerate the oral English, but you are not going to get academic English.”

Parent Francisco Arras fears, too, that a fast-track English program will make it more difficult for Spanish-speaking parents who want to keep up with their children’s schooling.

“Spanish-speaking parents are going to be set aside from the learning process of their kids,” he said. “There won’t be a lot of things those parents will be able to do for their kids.”

Faced with threats of legal action from Hispanic activists, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, and charges of trying to gut bilingual education altogether, Guthrie now plans to postpone an April 24 board vote so he can have more time to better explain what he wants to do.

Proponents of bilingual education look to research similar to that done by David Ramirez, director of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at California State University in Long Beach.

Ramirez said that becoming proficient in a new language is no different than acquiring any other skill: Children learn at different rates.

“It’s around five to seven years for most people to acquire a second language when you are trying to get them to work in that language in an academic setting,” he said.

But those who want to limit bilingual education point to other research, which argues that shorter, more intensive immersion in the English language works best.

Rosalie Porter, with the Washington-based Research in English Acquisition and Development Institute, cited research showing that the earlier children are exposed to instruction in English, the better.

“If you put off the learning of English, it makes it harder,” Porter said. “Children can learn to read in English as well as in Spanish. They don’t have to be taught reading in their native language first in order to do well in reading.”

In Houston, school board members have begun reviewing research on both sides of the issue to determine what direction they want the district to go. They also are looking at district data and planning future workshops to discuss the matter.

“To me, this is a very strategic issue, and we’ve got to figure out some way to do it without politicizing,” said Gabriel Vasquez, who co-chairs a board committee on bilingual education. “We are trying very hard to rise above the current debate to do what is best for children.”

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