LINDA VELASQUEZ recalls all too vividly the mid-1950s and her
beginning years in a Houston public school.
For children such as Velasquez who spoke no English, those
were the sink-or-swim years, the years before school districts
nationwide adopted bilingual education. Velasquez recalls the ruler
slaps on her knuckles when she couldn’t understand what the teacher
was asking, the sick stomach that often sent her to the nurse’s
When Velasquez’ language barrier targeted her for special
education in the second grade, her mother sent her to a private
school. She still remembers the day, even the book she was reading,
when the English finally made sense. She was in the fourth grade. The book was “”The Cat and the Canary. ”
“”It really left such a lasting impression on me,” said
Velasquez, who now has a doctorate degree and coordinates a
federally funded bilingual education program at Burbank Middle
In the Houston Independent School District, more than 50,000
students — fully one-fourth of the student body — come from homes
where little if any English is spoken.
While some argue that students should be pushed to use
English as quickly as possible, Velasquez — who reflects today’s
dominant educational philosophy — believes in teaching students
first how to read and reason in their native language before
forcing them to use English.
“”It is a lot easier to learn a brand new concept in a
language that you understand than trying to learn a new language
and a new concept at the same time,” she said. “”When they have
that foundation in the first language, it is just a matter of
putting a new label on what they have already learned. ”
In an inner-city school district that is more than 50
percent Hispanic, state-mandated bilingual programs have become the
norm for Spanish-speaking children. As for children of other
nationalities, there are rarely enough children in any one school
to justify bilingual classes. Consequently, most are taught in
English but with strategies specifically designed for instruction
in a second language.
Exactly what forms these programs take vary greatly from
school to school, and to some extent, district to district.
Cunningham Elementary is one of many elementary schools that
offers a traditional bilingual program. Children from
Spanish-speaking homes first learn their lessons in Spanish, while
every year they are taught more and more English. Students make the
transition to an all-English class when they are considered ready.
Darren Crasto, a fourth-grade bilingual teacher at
Cunningham, said he can empathize with children who are struggling
to learn their lessons in a new language. As an English-speaking
child, he was taught for two years in a German classroom.
“”It’s terrifying,” he said. “”Your head can’t absorb
academic things because the language is so shocking. ”
But first-grade teacher Mariarosa Oliver said in her class,
where most of the day is spent giving students an academic
foundation in Spanish, “”They are learning English, and they don’t
even realize it. ”
Although bilingual programs normally are not offered after
elementary school, Burbank Middle School has one for roughly 130
students who are still having trouble with English or have recently
arrived from Spanish-speaking countries. As in the elementary
schools, students are taught first in their native language.
Some of the students, educators say, have had little prior
schooling before emigrating to the U.S.As bilingual coordinator
Velasquez sees it, “”The idea is to get them educated, not just to
learn English. ”
Herod Elementary last year began offering a dual-language
program in some classes where 50 percent of the children spoke only
English and 50 percent spoke only Spanish. Half the lessons were
taught in Spanish and half were taught in English so the children
could become fluent and literate in both languages.
The program, limited last year to one class in kindergarten,
first and second grades, has proven so popular with parents like
Patty Sommer that there is a long waiting list of students wanting
“”They don’t have a problem; it’s just amazing,” said
Sommer, whose 6-year-old daughter, Caroline, went through
kindergarten hearing her lessons in two languages. “”I don’t have
any doubt in my mind that if she continues, she is going to be
Frances McArthur, the program’s coordinator, is thrilled.
“”The kids are surpassing what we had hoped for,” she said.
The Aldine Independent School District has created an
English language institute for students in grades 5 through 12 who
are new arrivals to the United States.
For one year or so, students spend half their days at the
institute, where teams of teachers give them intense English
instruction. The rest of their day is spent at their home school
taking mostly nonacademic courses. After leaving the institute,
students attend classes where teachers use hands-on academic
instruction to further improve their English before they are moved
into regular classes.
“”They have to have knowledge of the language before you can
begin teaching content vocabulary that they know nothing about,”
said Aldine’s Eva Lopez, who also advocates bilingual education
when it is appropriate for the child.
But bilingual education, even in its many forms, is getting
renewed scrutiny, drawing criticism from people who quarrel with
its effectiveness and question why public money should be spent to
promote the preservation of a child’s native language and the
culture that defines it.
Bilingual proponents like Noelia Garza cite research showing
that children who learn first in their native language and then
make a gradual transition to English do best academically.
“”It works if it is implemented the way it is supposed to
be,” said Garza, director of bilingual education in HISD.
But groups like the READ Institute and U.S. English cite
their own studies to argue that the faster children learn English,
“”The focus has to be on helping them move into English, and
that is where the emphasis has been missing in most bilingual
programs,” said Patty Whitelaw-Hill, executive director of the
READ Institute, which stands for Research in English Acquisition
Indeed, federal funding for bilingual education, as well as
other educational programs, faces cuts this year and in the future.
As part of a cost-cutting plan, Congress recently voted to trim
about $ 38 million from bilingual programs, although President
Clinton has pledged a veto.
U.S.Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, who sits on the Economic
and Education Opportunities Committee, could not speculate how bilingual education will fare in next year’s budget allocations.
”In Washington, we are looking at budget cuts,” said
Green, who vows to fight to maintain bilingual funding. “”All
education funding is in jeopardy, but bilingual in particular. ”
Although most bilingual funding comes from the state, some
programs — including two in HISD — are funded with federal grant
money. The programs at Burbank and Herod received a total of nearly
$ 350,000 in federal funds this year.
As for state dollars, every child deemed nonproficient in
English attracts 10 percent more funding than the average
English-speaking child. School officials say the additional money
is needed not only for materials but to recruit hard-to-find
HISD, for example, offers bilingual teachers a $ 3,000
stipend, yet still finds them in short supply. Last year, 1,200
non-English-speaking students were in all-English classes because
there were too few bilingual teachers to go around.
And the problem of finding qualified teachers is not likely
to get any easier.
However, the high school exit exam — the all-important test
for students wanting a diploma — will continue to be offered in