Program targets language barrier

HISD says boosting English works

Geovanny Guerrero wants a better life. He wants a good job when he is older.

That’s why the 10-year-old wants to learn English.

But the fourth-grader has a long way to go.

“I do believe I will learn English only if I really try hard,” said Geovanny, through the translation of his bilingual education teacher at Anderson Elementary. Houston Independent School District officials are hoping a bilingual education policy will help students such as Geovanny by providing more of what they need – English.

The board established the policy two years ago, and since that time district officials have implemented requirements governing instruction, expectations,
training and monitoring of the 33,000 students enrolled in bilingual education classes this year.

This is the first year the changes have been in full force.

Before the policy, trustees were concerned about the high dropout rate among Hispanics that officials feared may have been linked to English proficiency.
Anecdotal information from middle school teachers also indicated students were not prepared in English. Officials were also aware that some elementary teachers were keeping students in bilingual education when they were ready for traditional class.

“We needed a clear-cut policy with a basic tenet that children should learn English as rapidly as individually possible,” said trustee Laurie Bricker.

But not everyone welcomed the change.

Some Hispanic leaders feared the proposal was a subterfuge for the English-only movement. Board member Esther Campos opposed the policy, saying a committee that recommended the policy should have had Hispanic representation. She also said state law had provisions governing bilingual education.

But HISD officials are confident the policy will be effective.

Educators have broadened the focus of instruction to encompass listening,
speaking, reading and writing in English. A vocabulary list by grade level has also been established.

And students will have to spend more time on English instruction in class and must demonstrate their proficiency orally.

To measure student improvement, HISD officials have developed a pilot English reading test for first- and second-graders. The tests will be given in the spring.

The policy also wants students to become proficient “as quickly as individually possible,” but not lose their native language.

Meanwhile, supervisors will observe teachers in their classrooms to make sure an emphasis on English is being maintained.

“Bilingual classrooms do teach more English than before. There’s expectations,” said Noelia Garza, manager for bilingual programs. “There’s a plan for learning English. There is accountability. There is monitoring.
(Bilingual parents) can expect their kids to learn English from day one.”

Jacel Morgan, the assistant superintendent for multilingual programs, admits that before the policy, the program had problems.

In some cases, classes were being taught by long-term substitutes who only spoke Spanish. That meant some students were languishing in the bilingual program and not progressing in English.

She believes the bilingual policy has the same potential to foster districtwide accountability in the same way the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills made schools concentrate on all students succeeding.

“There are children who had been learning English all along, but we had no formal way of showing it,” Morgan said. “We didn’t have a way to measure and hold teachers accountable. We just can’t rely on our gut feelings that they are learning.

“It’s a better program. Before, there were schools that were performing, but not all schools,” she said. “You need a policy to ensure it gets consistency across the city of Houston.”

Board President Jeff Shadwick, who co-authored the policy along with Gabriel Vasquez, a former board member who is now a city councilman, said that under the old system, some students were doing well on Spanish-language achievement tests but scoring low when tested in English.

“We didn’t create the policy of kids in the United States going to school in English. All our policy did was make sure they were prepared in middle school,” Shadwick said. “It was our perception the language acquisition was not there. Where the rubber meets the road, we found out they were not cutting it.”

Campos is taking a wait-and-see attitude about the measures and whether they are effective.

“The proof will be whether the children are being successful in making the transition,” Campos said. “I really feel I did the right thing by questioning the policy. We didn’t need to reinvent a new wheel.”



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