Removing the Language Barrier

$100M debate: Is it a right, a luxury---or a mistake.

Classroom 1: Francesca Canelon has run out of red paint for the
food baskets she and her kindergarten classmates are making.

Amid the gabble of English and Spanish being spoken by 29 little
voices in her Union City class, Francesca tugs on her teacher’s sleeve
and pleads, “Necesito mas pintura!” “Ask me in English,” Katuska Mosquero tells her pigtailed pupil,
age 5, who playfully rolls her eyes in response. “C’mon, what do you
need?” “I need more paint,” says Francesca, who recently emigrated from

Classroom 2: At Wayne Hills High School, two newcomers join a small
class of students from El Salvador, Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic.

Abdullah and Mohammed are wide-eyed and anxious, and laugh nervously
when their attempts at English sound too much like the Arabic spoken in
their homeland, rural Syria.

Teacher Joe Reilly, with rolled-up sleeves and quick movements from
one student to the next, shows the Syrian boys how to pronounce “p” by
putting a scrap of paper in front of their mouths: “Puh, puh, puh…packages.”

Afterward, Reilly says: “You do what you can do.”

In 1994, children in New Jersey who are not fluent in English have
found themselves in some version of Classroom No. 1 or Classroom No. 2.
The first is a dual-language “bilingual education” class. The second is
an “English as a Second Language” (ESL) class, where only English is

As a gateway for more and more immigrants, New Jersey is host to an
escalating dispute over how best to teach children whose first language
is not English. In Classroom 1? Classroom 2? Or in some combination of
the widely varying types of bilingual and ESL classes operating in the
state’s classrooms?

In recent weeks this long-standing debate has intensified. And in
the coming months New Jersey must find a way to reach a consensus on
this divisive, and expensive, issue, which costs more than $ 100
million in state and local dollars each year.

The deadline is September, and the clock is ticking.

That’s because many of the state’s bilingual and ESL programs were
declared illegal in August by New Jersey Attorney General Deborah
Poritz. In a ruling that stunned the education community, Poritz gave
educators and lawmakers one year to implement an effective, legal, and
socially acceptable method of teaching English to immigrants.

This has driven New Jersey to a crossroads, financial,
philosophical, and political, over how to overhaul bilingual education
for the first time since it was created two decades ago.

In those 20 years, problems have multiplied: A dire shortage of
certified teachers has led to “emergency certifications” for unqualified
instructors; state funding has declined in each of the past three years,
even as the number of students has surged; a disparate funding formula
gives urban districts, which often have larger and costlier programs,
the same funding per pupil as suburban districts. And the latter often
get waivers from state requirements to let them operate smaller, less
expensive programs.

Even state Education Commissioner Leo Klagholz calls it a
“fraudulent system, where it looks like something on paper but it
really isn’t.”

The debate over how to fix that system has provoked emotional,
ideological, and sometimes racial arguments in a state where one in five
residents speaks a language other than English at home. Central to the
debate is whether native-language instruction for ethnic minorities is a
right, a luxury, or a mistake.

Whatever educators and legislators decide, the implications will be
far-reaching and long-lasting. They will affect not only newcomers to
the United States and their American-born classmates, but those whose
taxes pay for this special schooling.

This all comes at a time of burgeoning ethnic diversity in North
Jersey. In Hackensack, 40 percent of the students are foreign-born, with
the number of students who speak limited English doubling in a decade.

Nearly half of Fort Lee’s students are Asian. Paterson, once mainly
Hispanic, is a growing destination for immigrants from the Middle East.

It also comes at a time of simmering national debate over
immigration policies, in the wake of the recent exodus of Cuban and
Haitian refugees as well as California’s voter-approved Proposition 187,
which seeks to deny public services, including education, to illegal

Jason Kim, president of the Korean-American Voters Association in
Englewood and just one of the many voices in this debate, said New
Jersey must act carefully, “because it’s not just a language issue. It’s
a matter of culture, acceptance, getting along.”

It’s also a matter of money and taxes.

Local districts pay growing share of tab

Scene 1: Looking back 20 years, Chuck Ehrlich never dreamed that
his job would grow so rapidly in significance. As the director of
bilingual education in North Arlington, he serves one of every 15
students in his school district.

“We’ve experienced many of the growing pains associated with
that,” said Ehrlich, who runs half-day bilingual programs for Hispanic
and Korean students.

So far, he is proud of the results. But if he had to hire enough
teachers for the full-time bilingual programs the state mandates, “It
would kill us.”

Scene 2: Driving along the winding, hilly roads of Englewood, past
mansions and apartment houses alike, Elizabeth Willaum bemoans the
“ignorance and fear” she says prevent some of her neighbors from
supporting the language programs she runs for Englewood schools.

She thinks bilingual education is a good idea and a social
responsibility. But convincing everyone has been a constant battle. “If
you don’t force multiculturalism, it’s not going to happen naturally,
500 years have proven that,” Willaum said. “When did bilingualism become
a bad word?”

Nearly 50,000 New Jersey students are limited in their English
proficiency, triple what it was a decade ago and up 16 percent in two
years. State aid for those students has exploded, from $ 4.5 million in
1976 to $ 57 million today. But the aid has been frozen since 1991, at
$ 1,100 per student, and local districts say they are picking up more and
more of the tab for bilingual education, through property taxes or
diverting money from other programs.

“It’s a real problem for many districts in the state,” said Iliana
Okum, New Jersey’s director of bilingual education.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1974 requires that school districts
with 20 or more students who speak a particular language provide
full-time bilingual education for them. That means a district with 20
Spanish-speaking, 20 Haitian-Creole, and 20 Polish students must have a
bilingual program, with certified bilingual teachers, for each of those
three languages.

Complying with the law was easy enough in the 1970s, when Spanish
was the predominant language of newcomers. But the demographics shifted
in the 1980s with the arrival of more Asian, Eastern European, Middle
Eastern, and Caribbean immigrants. Today, one in five schoolchildren
speaks a language other than English at home, in all, more than 100
languages, such as Hindi, Gujarati, Arabic, Creole, and Korean, are
spoken. And that shift has overburdened bilingual education.

To cut schools some slack, the state since 1989 has given some
districts permission to establish less costly “alternative” programs,
instead of forcing them to provide the required full-time bilingual

But in August, the attorney general declared such waivers illegal.

She gave all districts a year to comply with the law by hiring enough
bilingual teachers for each of their clusters of foreign-speaking

Districts have howled at the prospect, saying it will bankrupt
them. And they complain that a shortage of certified teachers makes it
impossible to staff such programs. Nationally, there is a shortage of
175,000 bilingual teachers, a U.S. Department of Education report said
in 1990.

In Wayne, 57 different languages are spoken in the homes of 6,500
students. “It’s not realistic for a diverse district like Wayne. We
don’t have a dominant language,” said Janet Agranoff, the bilingual
coordinator. “I would hope that they state officials would recognize
what they’re asking is not realistic. It’s not fiscally or logistically

Lawmakers are now considering ways to give districts more
flexibility. Senate President Donald T. DiFrancesco, R-Union, has
sponsored a bill to allow districts to establish alternative programs if
they can’t afford full-time bilingual instruction. And Sen. John H.
Ewing, R-Somerset, president of the Senate Education Committee, has a
bill to require parental consent before a child is placed in a bilingual
program; school principals now make that call.

DiFrancesco argues that immersing children in English is the best
way to teach them. Others, like Paterson Mayor William J. Pascrell, call
his approach an “escape hatch” that allows districts to cut costs at
immigrants expense.

Advocates of bilingual education, particularly New Jersey’s large
Latino population, are rallying against that approach. Cuban-born
Assemblyman Rudy Garcia calls DiFrancesco’s bill a “knee-jerk reaction”
to the attorney general. “Really what they’re doing is watering down the
program as much as they can, but still saying that they support the
program,” Garcia said.

The Democratic lawmaker sees bilingual education as a way to create
students who are proficient in English and Spanish, an asset to the
state’s future work force. “Bilingual education in the state of New
Jersey provides the best opportunity for a child with limited English
to succeed, in school and in life,” Garcia said. “There are many
districts that are virtually turning their back on these …


Garcia is sponsoring a bill that would require full-time bilingual
programs only when a district has 20 students in three consecutive
grades who speak the same native language. It has gained the support of
the state teachers union but has yet to reach the Assembly floor.

“There’s an anti-immigrant sentiment running across the state of
New Jersey. And that’s one of the things I’m trying to dispel,” Garcia

A lack of research on teaching methods

Scene 1: Ly Su is sitting in class at Wayne Hills High trying to
pronounce the word “sure.” But it keeps coming out “soo-ah, soo-ah.”

Su was born in China and raised in Vietnam after her parents died.

Even in Vietnamese, Su is not fully literate. Her classmates cannot
help: They speak Spanish and Arabic. Nonetheless, Su smiles a lot and
keeps trying: “soo-ah.”

“She needs time,” her teacher says. “But she does not have that
much time.”

Scene 2: Miguel De la Cruz, 16, and his family left their home in
Peru five years ago. “I didn’t know nothing when I came here,” he says,
sitting with other Spanish-speaking classmates in a room at Union City
High School.

His slow transition to English was helped, he says, by the
bilingual classes he attended. There, he could make mistakes with other
students who were making the same mistakes and “not be afraid to sound

“My friends used to laugh at me. But I didn’t care. I just kept
talking. That’s how I learned,” he said.

One reason for the breadth of the debate over bilingual education
is the lack of a definitive study on the merits of one approach over

An eight-year federal study completed in 1991 found that students
taught in bilingual programs achieved greater academic success than
those in ESL classes. But a recent study of New York City’s bilingual
program found that immigrant students fared better in classes taught
completely in English.

Until the legal requirements are specified, districts will continue
to cope with the rising tide of ethnic and linguistic diversity as they
see fit.

Union City does it by reinforcing students Spanish while also
teaching them English. “Many people find that wrong. But if you don’t
have the skills in your own language, you can’t learn English,” said
Mosquero, the teacher.

But a district like Wayne, with dozens of native languages, has no
choice but to put those students in part-time, English-intensive ESL
classes and hope for the best, said Agranoff, the bilingual director.

“In many cases, they just end up sitting in the back of the room,
totally unaware. We don’t know where else to place them. Some of them
speak no English at all. They don’t know the letters, they don’t know
the numbers. If they weren’t 15 and 17, you’d put them in first grade,”
she said.

“If you’re a town where everybody speaks Spanish, it’s not a
problem. Here, we’re not saying that they give up their native language.

We’re saying that to function in our particular setting, you have to
know English.”

Barbara Judie Haynes, an ESL teacher in River Edge, where 28
percent of students speak a foreign language at home, said the economic
realities of this debate unfortunately outweigh even the strongest
opinions on what’s “best.”

“For us to eradicate someone’s second language is ludicrous,”
Haynes said. “Most of the teachers here feel strongly that bilingual
education is a good idea. And we have great hopes for Garcia’s bill.

But financially, it’s not feasible. We’re a small state, but we really
have very different needs.”

What happens next in the Legislature is anybody’s guess. Klagholz,
the education commissioner, said his department will soon release a
proposed bill that maintains support of bilingual education, “but with
an injection of rationality.”

He hopes lawmakers will agree, yet he anticipates a legislative

“We’re not going to abandon bilingual education,” Klagholz said.

“But we have a year. I think it’s worth it to take our time.”

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