Setting a course for bilingual education in the Santa Fe schools

Dual-language immersion could be just the thing to breathe life into the district’s underfunded and undercoordinated program, an advisory panel says

English is a second language for nearly a quarter of the students enrolled in the Santa Fe schools. Yet the district has no clear vision for how it wants to educate these children.

Georgia Roybal, a former bilingual-education teacher and a member of a committee appointed by the district to look into its bilingual programs, said there are many different models in the Santa Fe schools, but, “none of them have been very strong.”

“There’s isolated cases of good things that are happening; there’s cases where people are very supportive of improving the situation; but the district to date has not had an overall plan,” Roybal said.

About 2,900 of the 13,000 students in the Santa Fe Public Schools are receiving bilingual services. Many more should be getting at least some instruction in their native language, Roybal says.

But the district’s bilingual program is underfunded and uncoordinated. Program director Rick Gutierrez is also responsible for federal programs and the administration of emergency immigrant funds. Much of the money generated by bilingual students goes to pay teacher salaries. And there is a shortage of professionals certified to teach bilingual classes.

“We’re just keeping our head above the water,” Gutierrez admitted.

Bilingualism under siege

Bilingual programs have come under attack in the last several years across the country. Opponents argue that public schools shouldn’t have to waste their time helping students maintain their native language. Immigrant children should be mainstreamed into English classes as quickly as possible, they say.

In 1998, Californians approved Proposition 227, which eliminated many of the bilingual-education programs in the public schools, although the law allows parents to seek waivers ensuring that their children continue to receive some bilingual services.

Last year, Arizona voters approved a similar measure, Proposition 203. While the law does not apply to American Indian nations, it is expected to be implemented in the fall. It is unclear what will happen, but some researchers think it will end bilingual programs there because the language in the law makes it very difficult for parents to obtain waivers like they do in California.

“The United States does not put a lot of value on bilingualism,” said Polly Beckmon, a resource specialist to bilingual teachers in Santa Fe. “To become part of the melting pot, you give up everything.”

Protections in New Mexico

Similar measure to oppose bilingual education haven’t surfaced so far in New Mexico or in Santa Fe, where 66 percent of the students are Hispanic. And there is no political pressure to abandon programs. In fact, Spanish-language instruction is guaranteed to Spanish-speaking pupils in Article 12, Section 8 of the New Mexico Constitution.

The Bilingual Multicultural Education Act of 1978 requires the state to establish and fund bilingual programs for students whose needs are “linguistically and culturally different” as another way to ensure equal education opportunities for all students.

Statewide about 68,000 students are enrolled in bilingual programs. About half of them receive only English as a Second Language classes in which the sole purpose is to teach English. They are not funded by the state.

The others participate in a program that uses their native language — usually Spanish — in instruction. New Mexico provides $ 34.3 million a year to school districts to operate these programs.

Problems and solutions

In Santa Fe, the bilingual-advisory committee appointed to develop a districtwide instructional plan has identified numerous problems — and some potential solutions.

The first priority, members of the committee said in recent interviews, should be to hire a full-time director. Gutierrez spends only a quarter of his time managing the bilingual programs, although, he said, “This is a full-time program.”

The district should also spend more of its state bilingual funds at the school sites, committee members say.

Of the $ 1.4 million the district received this year from the state, close to half — about $ 760,000 — stays in central administration’s operational budget to pay for teacher salaries. The rest goes for bilingual education stipends, teacher training, Gutierrez’s salary and other costs.

Roberto Mondragon, a former lieutenant governor and a member of the committee, argued that the district should not raid the bilingual program to pay its teachers.

“If that money wasn’t there, they would still have to pay for those teachers,” he said.

The committee is likely to suggest that the district gradually reverse that practice over a three-year period until as much as 90 percent of the money the district is allocated is shifted to the school programs.

The committee says the district could be losing money because it has not identified all the students eligible for bilingual assistance. Any student who indicates their home language is not English is entitled to a state-mandated Idea Proficiency Test, which determines how many hours — if any — of a bilingual program a student requires. The tests must be administered one-on-one.

But the Santa Fe district does not have a specialized team to administer the tests. It relies on the classroom teacher for testing, taking away from instruction time.

To date, Gutierrez said, the testing is complete at all schools, but he admits results are not complete because classroom teachers simply don’t have time to test all their students.

Roybal is co-director of Aspectos Culturales, a Santa Fe-based organization that publishes Spanish-speaking texts that are distributed to New Mexico schools. She suggests that the district could bring in twice as much money for bilingual programs if it adequately tested its students. Hiring a testing team should be another top priority, she said.

Like districts nationwide, Santa Fe is facing a shortage of qualified teachers for its bilingual program. There are 89 teachers with bilingual endorsements; Another 52 teachers have been granted waivers.

Staffing is the biggest problem the district will face in revitalizing its bilingual-education programs, Sweeney Elementary School principal Bill Beacham said.

Last year, Sweeney had six vacancies for bilingual-education teachers but was able to fill just one. Beacham agrees that the biggest obstacle is the low teacher pay in the district.

District salaries are not competitive with others in New Mexico — or the rest of the country. Fully qualified bilingual teachers in Santa Fe receive a $ 600 stipend per year on top of their regular pay. Schools in Albuquerque and Cuba, N.M., for example, offer an extra $ 3,000.

Because of budget constraints, the district this year cut two positions for bilingual-teacher-resource specialists. The specialists are responsible for going to the different schools to provide assistance to bilingual teachers.

Ways to fix the program

The advisory committee, composed of community members, principals, administrators and teachers, will submit its plan to the board for approval this month. Members of the committee say a full-fledged program can be implemented by the 2003-04 school year.

After more than six months of studying the district’s bilingual programs, the committee will encourage the district to gradually adopt a dual-language immersion model like the one used at Escuela Bilingue Washington, an elementary school in Boulder Valley, Colo.

In this instructional method, non-English-speaking students are taught alongside those whose main language is English; the goal is to make them bilingual and biliterate in English and a second language.

Researchers have identified a number of benefits to high-quality immersion programs. They have found that students who have command of their first language are able to master literacy in their second language much easier. And continuing to learn in their native language in no way threatens their ability to learn English.

Stephen Krashen, a professor of education at the University of California, has written more than 100 books on literacy and the acquisition of additional languages. He examines all these theories in his 1996 book, Under Attack: The case of Bilingual Education. Krashen reported that language-minority students in bilingual programs actually perform better academically than their peers who do not participate in these programs.

He cites other benefits to dual-language immersion, including greater understanding and respect of culture and an advantage over monolingual employees in the working world.

New Mexico tested the model five years ago at five schools in the state. In Santa Fe, Nava Elementary is in its second year of an English-Spanish immersion program. The school is paying for the program with federal money. Carlos Gilbert Elementary also has a Spanish-English and English-German program in kindergarten. But because of budget constraints, it is unclear whether it will continue the program next year.

Dual-language models are sprouting elsewhere in the state, although there is still no school or district that is totally dual-immersion.

Dolores Gonzales Elementary in Albuquerque started its program six years ago and has a program that has moved toward this bilingual model. It is looking to become a schoolwide program and in May will release achievement results.

The Pecos Independent School district also started the program in several grades this year with the help of a five-year federal grant.

Students who are not in the dual-language program still receive at least 45 minutes of instruction in Spanish. The district hopes to become the first in the country to be 100 percent bilingual, said Luis Quinones, the district’s director of bilingual education.


Beacham, the principal at Sweeney, questions whether a dual-language program will work for every Santa Fe public school because of the difficulty of hiring bilingual teachers and because of the characteristics of Santa Fe school populations.

“You can draw the most beautiful program in the world including dual- language, but if you don’t have the staff, you can’t do it,” he said.

Besides, he said, “The needs of our bilingual community are different.”

A dual-language immersion program will only benefit students if they are exposed to it year after year, Beacham said. This is problematic at a school like Sweeney. Half of its 700 students are native Spanish-speakers. But there is a 25 percent turnover in the student population each year.

“It’s a dilemma for us,” Beacham said.

Sweeney uses the bilingual maintenance model, which helps immigrant children continue to develop their home language but eventually learn to speak, read and write in English. In early years, content is done in Spanish and students continue to receive English as a Second Language classes until they can be taught other subject matter in English. This program is for language-minority students only.

Beacham added that while he is not opposed to dual-language immersion, he says it’s simply not the best model for a school such as Sweeney.

Based on its population, Sweeney obtained a five-year, $ 812,000 federal grant to strengthen its existing bilingual services. The school used the money to purchase supplies, provide after-school and summer programs, supply resources to educate parents about the program and to pay for teachers there to become certified, bilingual-endorsed or both.

With the help of the federal grant, 10 teachers at Sweeney are working on getting bilingual endorsements. Six teacher assistants are working on getting certified and endorsed. The school is trying to set up the program so it will stay in place even after the grant runs out.

It hasn’t been a priority

Many blame the lack of vision in the district to a history and a national mentality that have not valued knowing two languages.

New Mexico is special in that Spanish was at one time the primary language. That has changed over the years, Beckmon said.

“New Mexico bought into the same thing the other states have — and that is, they gave up Spanish,” she said.

The key is for the community to take the lead in establishing a vision, said Marta Townsend-Weiss, an ESL teacher at Sweeney.

“We haven’t had the conversation in our community,” Townsend-Weiss said. “The people of this town need to talk about it. Our community has to decide: Do we value two languages?”

Then the community must stand behind its programs, said Pecos’ Quinones.

“There’s different ways that people have been looking at bilingual education,” he said. “I think bilingual education should be called bilingual/biliterate education.”

“If you really support something and if you go 100 percent for a program, it will succeed,” he said.

Comments are closed.