Schools strive to make bilingual education work

FORT WORTH – The saying, “as California goes, so goes the nation,” has been true with some educational trends. But bilingual education may prove to be the exception.

Although California voters decided last week to shut down their bilingual education program, educators in Texas and across the nation say that’s the wrong way to go.

Instead, they are revamping or expanding programs to ease the language transition for students who come into public schools speaking little or no English.

“We’re looking at an increasing population of Hispanics and we want to ensure they are educated and learn English, and remember that they will be helping us compete globally with their culture and their language,” said Fort Worth school board member Jesse Martinez, a manager at Lockheed Martin.

Small school districts are facing the same situation as their larger neighbors.

“Right now, our numbers are so small that we only have ESL English-as-a-second-language programs,” said Superintendent John C. Brooks of the Northwest school district. “But we have a contingency plan for providing appropriate programs for kids if our numbers grow.

The greatest problem is finding bilingual teachers. “

Last year, Fort Worth asked the same question debated in California. Is bilingual education working?

The answer was no, with some exceptions. Thomas Tocco, Fort Worth’s superintendent, said that students taught in Spanish were not getting enough English and weren’t doing well on tests in either language.

Students in bilingual classes who took the English version of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills often failed, even after five to seven years in the district. Some who started in bilingual kindergarten classes remained in ESL classes well into middle and high school, he said.

“Whatever we were doing, it surely did not have a good short-term effect,” Tocco said.

Instead of eliminating bilingual instruction, however, the Fort Worth school board is committed to increasing funding of bilingual education by $ 3.9 million during the next two years. The board also voted to scale back bilingual education in lower grades, concentrate scarce bilingual teachers at that level, and eliminate bilingual instruction in fourth and fifth grades, replacing it with ESL language centers for students who need help. The changes go into effect in August.

No one would dispute that children in U.S. schools must learn English to succeed. How to teach them is the crux of the argument.

“The bilingual approach almost goes against common sense,” said Cecilia Silva, a teacher in the education department at Texas Christian University. “Common sense tells you the sooner and the more English, the better,” she said.

However, “the latest research indicates that the stronger the foundation in their first language, the higher the achievement later on,” said Silva, who is helping to develop a bilingual teacher program at TCU.

Two frequently cited studies found that the gains children make through the “immersion” method in early school years are not as long-lasting as for those who learn to some degree in their native language.

The Ramirez Report, funded by the federal government, and a study by Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas of George Mason University say the academic progress of students immersed in English falls off in high school.

Every morning at Washington Heights Elementary School, one of the Fort Worth school district’s 24 schools with bilingual classes, kindergarten teacher Fabiola Davis uses a metaphor even a 5-year-old can grasp.

It’s time to change the Spanish-language channel in their heads to the English channel, she tells the children, just like they change the TV channel at home.

They’ve usually spent the night before watching Spanish-language television and speaking Spanish with their families, Davis explained.

The mental switch allows them to focus on learning the calendar in English.

They switch back to Spanish when they write in their journals, sounding out words in Spanish phonetically the same way English speakers do in English at that grade level.

Bilingual teachers such as Davis use Spanish, or whatever native language the children speak, to teach basic reading, writing, math, science and social studies while at the same time using ESL methods such as pictures and props to teach English.

Schools without bilingual classes provide specially-trained ESL-certified teachers who use only English and need not speak the children’s native language.

In ESL classes, newcomers often display the “deer caught in headlights syndrome,” said Adaire Fisher, who teaches in the ESL language center at J.P. Elder Middle School in the Fort Worth district.

They sit there, wide-eyed, taking in everything, saying nothing.

If they know how to read or do math in their home language, they catch on pretty quickly. If they don’t, then they start with the alphabet.

“We get kids who know there must be a dictionary in this classroom and they immediately find out where it is,” Fisher said. “And we get kids who don’t know which side of the paper to write on. “

Fisher begins building vocabulary and understanding, even acting out verbs like standing, sitting, running and walking. Within a few weeks, she said, students usually say something in English – to fellow students on the playground.

The same thing happens in Julie Rainwater’s ESL second-grade classroom at De Zavala Elementary.

“There’s a silent period,” Rainwater said, mentioning a Vietnamese girl who had just arrived weeks earlier.

“Luckily for her, I have other Vietnamese children who can translate,” Rainwater said, panning a classroom of Vietnamese, Laotian, Croatian, Kurdish, Iraqi and Mexican students.

An Iraqi girl who started school last year wasn’t as fortunate.

“In the beginning, she didn’t know it was time to go to lunch or time to go to the bathroom,” Rainwater said, adding that they had to lead her by the hand. Using a lot of pictures and gestures to build vocabulary, Rainwater began teaching the girl.

A year later, she was reading out of the second-grade book, although “she doesn’t always understand what she’s reading. The comprehension isn’t the same,” Rainwater said. “It’s difficult, because you can’t communicate with them, especially when you have 20 of them. “

Still, Rainwater wouldn’t dream of teaching the students to read first in their native languages, even if she knew them. It just doesn’t make sense if the goal is to make them fluent in English, she said.

Fort Worth’s bilingual classes aim to make students proficient in English within three years and academically fluent within six years.

Experts say it takes five to seven years to master a second language.

That approach, adopted in Fort Worth in 1969, is called “transitional. ” It seeks to use a student’s native language, in Fort Worth’s case Spanish, as a bridge to learning English, while teaching material appropriate for the grade.

It is the approach endorsed by U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley and the state of Texas, and the most common approach in the country. But some national experts say it is the least effective model and that providing students more time in their native language produces better long-term academic results.

Houston, El Paso, Chicago, Miami, New York, San Jose, Calif., and 200 other districts even have programs that aim to graduate fully bilingual students. The thrust has largely come from the cities’ business communities.

For example, Houston has eight “two-way bilingual immersion” programs in which native English and native Spanish speakers are taught all subjects in Spanish in kindergarten through third grade, with 30 to 60 minutes of English instruction. The district is planning to phase in additional grades as the students advance through grade 12, said Jose Hernandez, assistant superintendent.

The group that led California’s fight against bilingual education cited anecdotal evidence and the belief that young children can easily learn a second language to support the English immersion approach that voters approved. Under that system, children would go into regular classrooms with their peers after one year of intensive English instruction. California districts have 60 days to make the change, but several organizations have filed a lawsuit to stop the measure.

Whatever method they choose, public schools must educate growing numbers of children who speak little or no English.

California has 1.4 million students with limited English skills, most of whom speak Spanish. That is followed by Texas with 447,343, according to the Texas Education Agency.

In Fort Worth, the number has grown from 6,292 in 1983 to 18,470 students last year who spoke limited English. Arlington has 5,359, a dramatic jump from 319 students in 1983. Irving, Birdville and Hurst-Euless-Bedford districts also provide bilingual education, reflecting a need in the student population for language help.

Of the 18,470 Fort Worth students with limited English skills in the 1997-98 school year, about 7,000 were in bilingual classes, said Chris Criswell, director of Fort Worth’s student placement center.

About 10,600 were in ESL classes. And 870 were in mainstream classes at their parents’ request, Criswell said.

The state holds districts accountable for how well these students learn. They can be exempted from the English-language TAAS test for up to three years, but they must pass it to get their diplomas.

Students who are exempted often take the Spanish TAAS, and those scores may be counted in rating schools next year.

“We just need to continue examining our programs and restructuring them to make sure we’re meeting the needs of children so they can achieve academically,” said Juanita Silva, associate superintendent in Fort Worth.

Compared with California, “We have more faith in our system and in our teachers,” said Fort Worth school board member Rachel Newman. “I believe we can do it – we can help these children learn English earlier. “

Sources on Bilingual Education

The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education – on the Internet at ncbe.gwu.eduor call (202) 467-0867

The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin – (512) 471-2872, P.O. Box 8047, Austin, TX 78713-2872.

The National Research Council – on the Internet at

READ Institute – (413) 256-0034, P.O. Box 2428, Amherst, MA 01004-2428.

Michele Melendez, (817) 390-7541

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