Schools Push Pilot Program Offering Bilingual Education

Last fall, St. Louis school officials said bilingual education was neither needed nor possible here. The foreign-born population was too small and too linguistically diverse.

Now, educators are scrambling to hire and train staffso that, by fall, students whose native languages are Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French or Arabic will learn basic subjects such as social studies and science in those languages.

The change reflects an increasing influx to the city. With the arrival of Mexican and Central American immigrants and refugees from Bosnia, Vietnam, Africa and the Caribbean, the St. Louis public school district has seen a near-doubling of the population in the past five years, up to at least 1, 500.

“The district is trying hard to keep up with the increase while serving these students in a way that will benefit them most,” said Nabila Salib, supervisor of language programs.

School officials here long shied away from bilingual education partly because they worried about it being a crutch and, ultimately, hampering students from becoming proficient in English.

The hope is that if students can study complicated topics in their own languages, they’ll keep up in those classes while eventually learning English.

The area’s ethnically heterogeneous population also made bilingual education seem impractical. Unlike Miami, for instance, with its dominatly Hispanic population, St. Louis lacks a concentration of one group.

Still, school officials say specific ethnic groups are becoming large enough to warrant bilingual education.

With the help of a federal grant, the district will set up for the 1996-97 school year pilot programs at Wyman Elementary, Fanning Middle and Roosevelt High schools, which have high foreign-student populations.

Under the bilingual program, any student can take classes in the foreign languages. “This will help students understand about different cultures,” Salib said.

For the past decade, the district has relied on English as a Second Language programs, known as ESL, which some call the sink-or-swim approach: immersing students with little or no English skills in classrooms where only English is spoken so they can learn the language quickly.

It would be counterproductive to abandon ESL because it’s “effective and necessary,” Salib said. Students will learn reading and writing in ESL classes and survival English in hallways and on playgrounds.

In all, students speak 37 languages other than English, she said. Those who don’t speak one of the five languages used in the bilingual program will continue with ESL.

Some big groups, such as Vietnamese and Bosnian youths, will not find courses in their languages, Salib said, in part because it is difficult to hire certified teachers. The five languages selected, she said, are similar to languages spoken by many students. For example, a Vietnamese student may receive instruction in Chinese, a Bosnian in Russian.

Efforts To Ease Transition

Historically, U.S. schools have favored the ESL method, says David E. Eskey, an education professor at the University of Southern California and director of its American Language Institute. “The idea is if you’re in this country, speak English,” he said. “And you do that by forcing yourself to function in English.”

Ideally, Eskey said, bilingual education is meant to ease the transition into American culture and language by teaching students in their native languages, so they won’t fall behind, while also instructing them in English. In a few years, students should be proficient in English.

But studies have pointed to students in California and Texas who, five years into a bilingual program, perform poorly in school and cannot speak English.

Combining ESL and bilingual methods is the best way to educate immigrant and refugee students, according to preliminary findings of a study from George Mason University in Virginia. Said to be the most complete national study of bilingual education yet, the study is scheduled for release in the spring.

The ESL-only approach has prompted complaints from some St. Louis students and their parents, Salib said. They’re concerned about youths lagging in a subject such as science – not because they can’t grasp the concepts, but because they have trouble learning in a new language. The result is frustration, Salib explained, which can cause students to drop out or act out their problems.

Students may suffer in ESL-only programs also because their parents can’t help with homework written in English and teachers are often too strapped to provide additional tutoring, said Gina Covello, a bilingual teacher at an elementary school in Los Angeles. “They have the smarts to succeed but schools are working against them,” she said.

Some Cast Doubt

At the beginning of the school year here, the district received a federal grant for $ 3 million spread over five years to help foreign-born students and their parents. Salib said much of the money will be used to hire staff, including four bilingual instructors this spring. She hopes to hire more in the fall.

In the early 1980s, the district successfully taught bilingual education to students from Vietnam and Laos but dropped the program for lack of money, Salib said.

Suddenly, it’s back, though many educators didn’t expect it.

“People like ESL,” said Jo Ann Perkins, principal at Fanning Middle School on Grace Avenue. But, “bilingual education is worth a try. I don’t know much about it, but I hear it’s supposed to be effective.”

One of her concerns is that some students will receive instruction in a language not their native tongue, but close to it. For example, a Haitian student, who speaks Creole, learning in French.

Perkins also wonders about foreign-born students whose native language is not among the five. “Maybe it’s not fair to all children,” she said. “But it’s still an improvement.”

Maybe it’s not, suggests Anna Crosslin, president of the International Institute of Metro St. Louis, the area’s largest resettlement agency for refugees.

“My experience says that families who learn English as quickly as possible fare better,” she said. “They’re more likely to succeed and adjust to the culture.”

Margaret Sherraden, who teaches social work at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, has studied Mexican immigrants in the Midwest – and says bilingual education may provide a boost for the newcomers. She found that immigrants thrive when they feel connected to their native language and culture.

“They succeed,” she said, “because they feel attached to their new and old communities.”

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