There are 20 gangs at Juarez High School. The newest, called La Raza, is made up of students in the school’s bilingual program.
These students are secluded. They move in groups from one bilingual classroom to another, having little contact with the general school population. Teachers theorize that because they felt isolated, outcasts in their own school, some of them banded together to form a gang.
The original purpose of teaching in two languages was to help students who do not speak English learn it quickly, while using their native language to keep them from failing in other classes. That was the reasoning behind the federal Bilingual Education Act of 1968.
But somewhere in the translation from congressional theory to educational practice, something went wrong at Juarez, something that has led not only to La Raza but to a bilingual program in trouble.
Bilingual education in theory is supposed to teach students to speak English in three years. In the meantime, they take classes like history and science in their native languages so that they can move toward graduation.
But students in Juarez’s bilingual program are not learning English adequately, teachers say. Neither are they fully literate in Spanish.
Instead, many are caught between the two languages, some kept in bilingual programs longer than necessary. Others are moved into regular classrooms before they are ready to cope in an all-English environment.
A state audit last year confirmed those problems and also found that nearly a fourth of the students in the bilingual program at Juarez were not taking intensive English courses. Another fourth lacked academic classes in Spanish. Auditors also discovered that two state-funded teachers intended for the bilingual program were being used in the school’s English department.
“What we’re doing is really just a form of baby-sitting,” says the program’s coordinator, Carlos Ortiz. “There is no consistent method in the way English concepts are being taught. Students are stuck in classes at levels lower than their ability. A lot of students are being used to boost enrollment in the program and ensure continued funding.
“Bilingual education is a big, big mess.”
Despite its drawbacks, critics and proponents agree that bilingual education keeps students in school by helping them adjust to a new culture. Only 12 percent of the students in bilingual education drop out, compared with a citywide dropout rate of 46 percent, school officials say.
But experts have long complained that high schools are left to their own devices to sort out educational needs from political and bureaucratic pressures, with little guidance from the Chicago Board of Education.
“I believe the kids are being shortchanged,” says Barbara Bonner, an English teacher at Juarez. “They’re being held back. They’re being stigmatized.”
One reason for the program’s deficiencies, Bonner says, is that teachers are emphasizing Spanish over English.
In the mid-1970s, a growing number of Hispanics began to argue that in addition to teaching English, bilingual education should help students maintain their native languages. Schools ought to help students preserve native culture, they said, and no one should ever again be ashamed or expelled from school for speaking a foreign language, as was often the case in Texas.
Juarez, built in 1977 in a style that evoked Mayan architecture and named for Mexico’s first Indian president, Benito Juarez, came to embody those goals for an entire community. The school, in the heart of Pilsen, a Near Southwest Side Mexican neighborhood, has long been a source of ethnic pride. Most of its 1,880 students are Hispanic, and nearly a fourth of those receive some bilingual instruction.
“This entire school is really one big bilingual program,” says Richard Schnettler, the principal. “In every classroom, it’s in and out of Spanish. That’s why parents want their kids to come here.”
Not everyone is comfortable with such a widespread use of Spanish. Critics contend that when bilingual education serves a purpose other than English fluency, immigrant children are, in effect, disenfranchised because they fail to learn English adequately.
The controversy continues to arouse passions, and as long as it does, the needs of students will be neglected.
“We’ve had to defend bilingual education against people who claim it’s a waste of time,” Ortiz explains. “We never had time for evaluation. We’ve never had anyone sit down and ask, ‘What’s working here? What’s not?’
“In the meantime, the students got lost in the shuffle.”
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Barbara Bonner waves her arm across the classroom. “This is what’s wrong with bilingual education,” she says.
She is referring to her entire class of 25 students, who she thinks would have been better off without bilingual education.
Bonner teaches English as a Second Language, intensive English instruction without the use of native language. Most of her students have been in bilingual programs for several years. She is convinced that is why, on average, they read English–and Spanish–at a 6th-grade level even though they are freshmen.
“When it’s not done right, bilingual education can be extremely detrimental,” she says.
To Bonner, the wrong kind of bilingual education uses too much Spanish. Though she favors native language for academic subjects, she believes English should be taught by someone like herself, someone who does not speak Spanish and will not be tempted to “cheat.”
“The biggest problem is that we have teachers who are not confident about their ability to speak English,” Bonner says. “What good are they in teaching English? They’re going to fall back on Spanish.”
One so tempted is Nora Tejeda. She begins her consumer math class each day by weaving in and out of each language.
“What about number four,” she asks the 20 students in her class. “Es mas o menos lo mismo que number three, que no?”
Long before class is over, however, it is being taught entirely in Spanish.
“It should be 50-50 I guess,” Tejeda ventures. “The problem is, I just forget to speak English sometimes. The students know I speak Spanish, so they just talk to me in Spanish.”
Tejeda explains that in this class, students understand English at varying levels, from a senior who has been in the program four years to a freshman who just arrived from Mexico. To make sure they all understand her, she speaks Spanish.
“Why are they all together in one classroom?” she asks. “That’s the way they were programmed.”
Juarez teachers often have trouble getting students out of the bilingual program. Sometimes they give up when confronted with the school’s bureaucracy, which is reluctant to change schedules.
“Even if they’re good, you can’t get them out,” Bonner says. “It’s as if programmers have etched their schedules in stone. To get a student out it takes an act of God.”
Often, students are put in the bilingual program because a faulty test showed that they did not know English when, in fact, they have reading problems in both languages. Students with learning disabilities are especially prone to being misplaced. Some end up spending their entire high school careers in bilingual programs.
Five Juarez seniors in the bilingual program will be unable to finish school on time because they have not taken a regular English course required for graduation. No one warned them that they needed the course.
Angelica Villalon, 14, was also misplaced. Born in Chicago, she took classes in English at St. Ann Catholic Elementary School in Pilsen through 4th grade.
When she was 9, her family moved to Mexico. Angelica finished grade school there and returned to Chicago last year. She was put in the bilingual program at Juarez, though she speaks English fluently. Under the guidelines, she has no business being there.
Students who speak a language other than English at home and are reading below grade level are often placed in bilingual programs even though they speak English.
But though Angelica, a freshman, reads at a 6th-grade level, she doesn’t need chemistry or history classes in Spanish. If anything, Bonner and Ortiz say, she needs more instruction in English.
But to qualify for state funding, the school is required to give students in the bilingual program two periods of instruction in Spanish. Angelica never questioned the move.
“I thought they had their reasons for putting me here,” she explains. “If I had my choice, I think I’d rather go straight with one language. I’d rather take my classes in English.”
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Schnettler, the principal, opposed bilingual education when he came to Juarez in 1977. Like many Americans, he believed that immigrant children learn best if they are immersed in English, the so-called “sink or swim” method.
“I thought it was enough to put them in an English class,” he recalls.
Gradually, Schnettler changed his position. “After hearing those kids struggle in history,” he explains, “I realized how important it is to teach them in Spanish.”
Indeed, a number of bilingual students at Juarez have successfully completed the program, underscoring its usefulness in communities with large immigrant populations. Last year, the school’s top two graduates were former bilingual students.
Without bilingual education, Schnettler says, there would be even fewer graduates at a school where the dropout rate is 50 percent.
“With all the problems facing kids in an inner-city school,” Schnettler says, “I think even fewer kids would make it.”
Consider Gustavo Morales, 19, a senior and member of Juarez’s wrestling team. Morales says the program at Juarez helped him overcome culture shock when he came to Chicago from Mexico three years ago, speaking no English.
At first, others laughed at him. “The kids made fun of me,” he says. “I felt embarrassed when I tried to speak English.”
Morales is making plans for college. He is conversationally fluent and hopes his skill as a wrestler will win him a scholarship.
“If I want to succeed in this country, I have to learn English,” he explains. “A lot of us came not knowing what to do. The teachers made us feel comfortable.”
Ortiz, born in Puerto Rico, knows first hand the difficulties Morales faced and says bilingual education is effective when it helps ease the transition from one culture to another.
But even though Schnettler has moved from distrusting bilingual education
to supporting it, Ortiz, originally an ardent defender, has developed a distaste for the political and bureaucratic issues involved.
Recently, Carmen Garcia, former bilingual coordinator at Clemente High School, was assigned the task of developing a bilingual model for all high schools, many of which face problems similar to those at Juarez.
Because of the unfavorable audit and her own observations, she has recommended a restructuring of the Juarez program. “It tends to be inflexible,” Garcia says.
Before the recommendation, Ortiz was so disillusioned with the mismanagement of Juarez’s program, he planned to leave the school. Instead, he celebrated when he heard of Garcia’s proposal, welcoming the opportunity to move kids out of the program who do not belong there. He predicts opposition from some teachers, however.
“If we make all these changes,” he says, “I can guarantee you that we’ll have fewer students in the program. That means we won’t need as many teachers.”
But when asked about the state audit violations, Schnettler said he planned to ignore many of them.
“To follow those guidelines would cause chaos,” he said. “Things don’t stay stable around here from one year to the next. I’ll do anything to avoid losing a teacher, knowing I’ll probably need him next year.”
Tuesday: Bilingual education at its best.
The young immigrants Chicago area schools are struggling to teach non-English speaking children from all over the world. This is one in a series of reports on how well schools meet the challenge. Bilingual