Shouting, chanting and stamping their feet, about 500 parents, teachers and students called on the Hartford Board of Education Tuesday night to preserve bilingual education.
The group, which included Vietnamese and Puerto Rican families, jammed the board’s High Street office to protest what they contend is an effort to gut the city’s bilingual education program.
Board member Patrick Kennedy, who has proposed revising the program and cutting four of five program administrators, drew the brunt of the protest. He has said he is not interested in wiping out the program, just reforming it.
“The cuts that you are about to make are not in the best interest of our children,” said Hector Reyes, a bilingual teacher at the SAND Everywhere School and a member of the community group Hartford Areas Rally Together. “We will take this matter to the federal government if we have to. . . . Believe me, Mr. Kennedy, justice will prevail.”
Kennedy, sitting next to Reyes, smiled as Reyes finished speaking. Facing him were signs reading: “No to Kennedy, Yes to bilingual education” and “Ku Klux Klan vs. Bilingual Education.”
Organized by HART and the Casa de Puerto Rico, the noisy protest came a month after parents, teachers and students angrily denounced Kennedy’s proposal, which, among other things, would limit children to no more than two years in the program.
“I want to learn English, but it will take me some time,” read one sign.
“Respeten Nuestra Raza!” (“Respect Our Race”) read another.
As the boisterous crowd chanted “Programa bilingue jamas sera vencido!” (“bilingual program will never be defeated”) one onlooker was heard to mutter, “Back to the ’60s.”
Outside the building before the meeting, a group of Vietnamese boys spoke of the program’s benefits. “If we don’t understand English, our teacher can explain it to us in Vietnamese,” said Tin Nguyen, 12, a sixth-grader at Dwight Elementary.
“We don’t want bilingual education to stop,” said his classmate Quang Tran, also 12.
Speakers also balked at Kennedy’s proposal to eliminate four bilingual administrative positions.
Kennedy, chairman of the board’s budget committee, said the cuts are part of a larger package totaling almost $2 million. With the board looking at a cut of up to $12 million from the superintendent’s proposed $183.8 million budget for next year, Kennedy believes programs such as bilingual education need scrutiny.
“What we’ve got is basically a failed program,” he said. “It’s mostly become a jobs program.” There are 275 bilingual education teachers in the system.
He said his reform plan last month prompted letters from people talking, for instance, about students who did not go through the program but “wound up speaking perfect English.”
But the protesters said Kennedy is targeting bilingual education, which this year is serving 5,500 – or about one-fifth – of Hartford’s students, out of more than financial concern.
“It’s all very mean-spirited and racially motivated,” said Edwin Vargas, a vice president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers and a former bilingual education teacher, before the demonstration.
Also speaking before the protest, board member Candida Flores-Sepulveda warned, “If you cut the administrative component of the bilingual program, you dismantle it.” Flores-Sepulveda is the only Hispanic person on the board.