McALLEN, Tex.—Feliciana Asencio’s fifth-grade daughter received four years of bilingual
education. Her kindergarten daughter isn’t going to get a single day’s worth. Good riddance, says mom.

“When you get instruction in two languages, it’s confusing,” Asencio said in broken English. “My older daughter didn’t do well at all in school. She could never understand the teachers’ instructions when they were in English . I say give them only English in school. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, we already speak Spanish all the time at home.”

Asencio’s notions strike like a small dagger at the heart of bilingual educators, who after 15 years of warding off attacks from a generally hostile public, are now bumping into disenchantment from within.

With research inconclusive about the effectiveness of bilingual education, and with Hispanic students continuing to lag far behind national norms on achievement tests, the Texas legislature has taken the lead nationally in searching for new ways to teach students whose native language is not English.

The most controversial of the 11 pilot projects under way in the state began last year in the Asencio girls’ school, Sam Houston Elementary, about five miles from the Mexican border. It is an updated version of the oldest language instruction method of all–immersion, this time in English.

The neighborhood that feeds Sam Houston is a barrio of houses and shacks, filled with farmer-worker families, day laborers and garment workers, many of whom are recent immigrants. It’s the poorest neighborhood in the city.

The children here enter kindergarden speaking no English. With one exception, their teachers are bilingual, but after a three-week breaking-in period, they speak only English in the classroom. Students are permitted to speak Spanish, but encouraged at all points to speak English. There have been no tests to measure the success of what is to be a five-year study, but the teachers, parents and principal at Sam Houston can barely contain their enthusiasm.

“It has made a world of difference,” said Wilbur Harper, Houston’s principal for 13 years. “We’d been using a bilingual education program and it just didn’t seem to be working. It took too long for the transition from Spanish to English to occur. And the longer it took, the further behind the children would fall.”

Elva Garcia, who teaches a first-grade immersion class, said: “Before we started this program, I never once had a single child in any of my classes reading at a grade level. Now I have some kids reading above grade level.”

Eva Hughes, the McAllen School District’s administrator for bilingual education, is delighted, too, with the positive early signs, but she’s quick to wave a caution flag.

“Fantastic things seem to be happening there, but you might be getting what we call the Hawthorne Effect,” she said. “Whenever you have a new program, everyone pulls hard to make it work, and their commitment is what makes the difference. The real test will come further down the road, when we see if these early gains hold.”

Other bilingual educators range in their reaction from skeptical to hostile.

Dr. Jose A. Cardenas of San Antonio, a former school administrator and now a leading bilingual consultant, believes that immersion might give students a basic speaking facility, but, by forcing them to think and learn in English before they are ready, it retards their cognitive and intellectual development. He suspects that may be the point.

Recent attacks on bilingual education come at least in part from “a conscious policy of ‘Let’s keep them in their place’ . . . . There are some elements that want to make sure Hispanic students are educated just well enough to have menial jobs,” he said.

Dr. Gloria Zamora, outgoing president of the National Association of Bilingual Educators, is less inclined to question the motives behind immersion but worries that the project results will be prematurely seized upon by traditional opponents of bilingual education.

“We aren’t afraid of looking at new approaches,” she said. “But let’s not take money from a program that is already underfunded.”

Congress is making $139 million in bilingual education funds available this year to school districts that apply for them. The Reagan administration has recommended halving that level in each of its first three years, but this year, in an apparent bow to the emerging power of the Hispanic voting bloc, it has asked for level funding.

Politically, the going has been rough for bilingual education since the program was first made a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968. Fewer than 15 percent of the estimated 6 million students who lack English proficiency are in federally funded bilingual programs.

In the final year of the Carter administration, the Department of Education drafted a set of proposed bilingual education requirements for all districts with substantial numbers of non-English-speaking students, but the effort was abandoned under President Reagan.

States have taken the lead in providing bilingual education, but the program designs, teacher training and funding levels vary so much that defenders say broad evaluations are impossible.

Though models vary, a typical bilingual program starts in kindergarten and runs through second or third grade, or until a student passes a test showing that he has gained enough English proficiency to be placed in regular classes.

Though some Hispanic activists in the late 1960s sold the program as a way to keep the Spanish language alive in this country, the fact remains–and always has been so–that Hispanics have “an overwhelming desire to learn English,” Zamora said.

Defenders of bilingual education such as Cardenas say native-language instruction to teach English is critical to giving foreign-language students feelings of self-worth, a necessary condition of learning. “The school is saying, ‘I accept your language and therefore I accept you,’ ” he said.

Until 1969, Texas was one of seven states that imposed criminal penalties on teachers who spoke Spanish in the classroom, and Hispanic educators have bitter memories of the racial prejudices they encountered as schoolchildren. The “sink-or-swim” approach to language instruction that prevailed until the late 1960s produced 80 percent dropout rates among Mexican-American students.

But defenders of the new immersion say it bears no resemblance to past methods.

“I’m sick of hearing about sink-or-swim,” said Thelma Lanfranco, a kindergarten teacher at Sam Houston Elementary. “We let the children into the water gently. We accept their language and let them move at their own pace.”

She tells the story, repeated in different forms by the other teachers in the pilot project here, of being “shocked” at the way even the slow learners in her class are able to pick up their new language.

“I had one little boy who, every time he left at the end of the day, he said, ‘Goodbye, teacher, I’m finished.’ Just the other day, he said, ‘Goodbye, teacher, I’m leaving.’ All of a sudden, he had picked it up.

“It makes me feel so much more successful when you see them learning English,” she said. “I find that I actually love to come to school.”

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