FORT WORTH – Changes proposed in bilingual education by Fort Worth schools Superintendent Thomas Tocco have some teachers worried that he is moving toward English immersion, a trend that has become a volatile issue in California.
Tocco’s proposal calls for eliminating most fourth- and fifth-grade bilingual classes, except for new students, and making sure students who start bilingual education in kindergarten or first grade are in all-English classes by the fourth grade.
Critics, including some bilingual education teachers, said Tocco’s proposal reminds them of the days when students were left to sink or swim in all-English classes.
As Fort Worth grapples with the issue, a California group called English for the Children is petitioning for a referendum to abolish bilingual education. The group argues that bilingual education keeps students from learning English.
In Orange County, Calif., bilingual education is being replaced with English immersion.
Tocco, whose proposal isn’t as drastic, will present his plan to the school board in January.
He said the current system isn’t moving students from Spanish to English fast enough – in part because some educators have been teaching mostly in Spanish. Also, some students have been bounced between bilingual classes taught mostly in Spanish and English as a second language, or ESL, classes, which are taught in English.
“We had students in fourth and fifth grade who still did not know English,” Tocco said at a recent community forum, where he issued a stern warning to his instructors to teach more English or consider working elsewhere.
Virginia Rodriquez, principal of De Zavala Elementary, said some students aren’t becoming proficient in English quickly enough because some bilingual teachers have been trying to help students master the basics in their native language so they can pass the Spanish-language Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test. Under a pilot program, a Spanish-language version of the TAAS was instituted two years ago.
Fort Worth’s bilingual program is called a “transitional program. ” It teaches basic reading, writing and math in Spanish in elementary school while students learn English.
Under the current system, students can receive up to 15 percent of instruction in Spanish through the fifth grade if necessary, but are expected to exit from the bilingual program by the end of the fourth grade if they started as prekindergartners or kindergartners.
Tocco wants to move up the exit date to the end of third grade and do away with Spanish instruction in fourth and fifth grades.
Students who have completed the bilingual program would continue to be placed in ESL classes taught by specially-trained teachers until they are fluent in English. ESL classes are offered at every school.
The district has 15 programs within middle schools, as well as the International Newcomer Academy for non-English-speaking students who enter the district in sixth through 12th grades.
Tocco’s proposal is the latest effort by the Fort Worth school district to improve bilingual education. The changes began two years ago when most bilingual teachers were assigned to prekindergarten through third grade.
Hector Martinez, a fourth-grade bilingual teacher at Worth Heights Elementary on East Butler Street, said he is worried that students who are forced into English before they are ready will get discouraged and eventually drop out of school.
“By the time they start in middle school, they are not going to get the help I am giving them,” he said.
Martinez said he recently started teaching all 29 of his students in English. Before, seven students received most of their instruction in Spanish. He switched to get them ready for an upcoming English benchmark exam.
“I’ve put them in English instruction, and it’s very difficult.
They have very limited English, and I’ve put them with English-speaking partners. We’ve just barely started, and it’s hard for them,” he said.
Tocco said he is not out to kill bilingual education, but realizes he is treading on controversial ground when it comes to language. He said he is confident he will win support from the Hispanic community and says he hopes parents help their children maintain fluency in their first language.
“I know I’m approaching the third rail of the American education system – the issue where the electricity is,” Tocco said. “But I believe parents do want their children to achieve at high levels. “
Many parents say they wish their children could become fluent in both languages, but the focus should be on English.
“I believe Dr. Tocco has the right idea – to start early with the kids,” said John Cardenas, vice president of the Manuel Jara Elementary PTA. “I see many students in the fifth grade that started in first who don’t speak English because the teachers don’t pound that English into them. “
Victor Dominguez, a third-grade bilingual teacher at Sam Rosen Elementary, said some parents aren’t aware that their children could fall behind in math and reading if those subjects can no longer be taught in Spanish and the students concentrate solely on learning English.
Carlos Vasquez, president-elect of the Fort Worth Association for Bilingual Education, said the group will reserve judgment until after meeting with Tocco on Jan. 14. It has also requested that the Texas Association of Bilingual Teachers assess the policy changes.
Tocco has transferred oversight of the bilingual department to Associate Superintendent Mauro Serrano, who heads operations, from Nancy Timmons, who heads curriculum.
The district is also in the process of hiring a new bilingual education director after longtime director Ramon Magallanes Jr. died last month. Two interim directors are overseeing the program.