Educators voiced strong commitment yesterday to offering bilingual education for North Texas students, condemning California’s decision to eliminate the programs as a travesty that will severely impede many children’s learning.
Bilingual education can work, area school leaders said, if more teachers are trained to help students make the transition from their native languages to English and the students are tested every year for their proficiency in English.
“The big difference in Texas and California is that we have a strong accountability system, and we hold all cultures accountable for learning the core subjects,” State Board of Education President Jack Christie said.
But some warned that the California vote was merely a precursor for other states, especially those with large Spanish-speaking populations.
“I certainly see the proponents of the English-only movement pouncing on this as something that needs to continue nationwide,” said Vicki Bargas, a League of United Latin American Citizens council president in Fort Worth.
In Texas, any school district with more than 20 students in the same grade who speak the same foreign language must develop a bilingual program for them. English as a Second Language students are considered exempt from the state’s performance test until their teachers consider them fluent in English.
As proof of bilingual programs’ success here, Tarrant and Denton county educators point to the low numbers of children they must exempt from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.
“We look at each child individually and we look at the growth that they are making,” said Fran Brown, principal at Roanoke Elementary School. “If we see immersion is not working, that child needs more one on one. Our success is that they become fluent English speakers and are passing the TAAS. “
California’s Proposition 227 was adopted Tuesday with more than 60 percent of the vote. The measure essentially ends the state’s 30-year-old bilingual education program by requiring that all children be taught in English. Students who speak little English will first get a one-year English immersion program.
“Hopefully, they will find themselves in classes that use ESL strategies,” Fort Worth school district Superintendent Thomas Tocco said yesterday. “If not, they are doomed to a lack of education and economic travail. “
Again and again, area educators said that the Golden State has gone too far. One year, educators said, is far too little time for students to acquire a new language.
“Does the student just have to stop learning until he picks up enough English in order to understand what’s going on in classes? ” said Wanda Ballard, consultant for the bilingual/ESL and foreign languages in Birdville school district. “If we can continue to instruct him in science and social studies so he’s gaining the concepts, he doesn’t have to just stop learning. “
But Texas can’t dismiss California’s defeat, state education officials said. Bilingual education has flaws that can’t be ignored.
Districts aren’t doing enough to train teachers in the skills needed to instruct non-English speakers. Texas also may need to offer a stipend to attract qualified candidates, they said.
“There are weaknesses, and we need to improve in getting all children speaking the English language proficiently,” Christie said.
“You need quality bilingual teachers who truly speak two languages.
That’s the core of bilingual. ”
Hispanic leaders said that a similar anti-bilingual education movement could take root in Texas if educators are unprepared.
“There is very little doubt that the public education system is not serving Latinos very well,” said Rodolfo de la Garza, vice president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.
Lupita Hinojosa, president of the Texas Association for Bilingual Educators, said, “These children will be the future of Texas. If we don’t educate them, we do not have a future. ” Proponents of the California measure used the issue to divide Hispanic voters, said Carlos Vasquez, president of the Fort Worth Association for Bilingual Education.
Hispanics “are devaluated if they do not know English. Parents want their children to succeed, and it is correct for them to learn English,” Vasquez said. “But the voters do not understand that to learn the language best, they first must have a grasp of Spanish, or their primary language. “
Many Texas officials including Gov. George W. Bush, support theh bilingual system and say it pushes children toward mastering English.
Some legislators and parents, however, support a cutback.
“I think it would be a pretty popular vote in Texas,” state Rep.
Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, said.
Today in Washington, the House Education Committee is scheduled to vote on a bill that would greatly alter bilingual education and its funding. Officials speculated that the bill never would have come before the committee for a vote if California’s proposition had failed.
In California yesterday, civil rights groups represented by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a class-action lawsuit charging that the new law violates the civil rights of youngsters who speak little English.
San Francisco school officials voted to continue bilingual programs until ordered to stop them, and they decided to pay the legal bills of any teacher who is sued for violating the measure.
Districts have 60 days to implement the policy.
In the 1996-1997 school year, 447,343 Texas students were enrolled in bilingual and English as a Second Language education, according to the Texas Education Agency. North Texas districts, like others, are seeing their immigrant populations soar.
Districts’ bilingual education programs vary widely, from those that group ESL students and teach them in their native languages until they are fluent in English to programs that immerse the students in regular classrooms.
Fort Worth, Birdville, Hurst-Euless-Bedford and Arlington school districts have enough Spanish-dominant speakers to have bilingual programs in the students’ native language.
Fort Worth is taking a middle-of-the-road approach – one that is recommended by U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley – that gives elementary school students three years of instruction in Spanish, with increasing amounts of English before they transition fully to English by fourth grade.
Birdville provides bilingual instruction for Spanish speakers in the primary grades at West Birdville Elementary School. H-E-B has programs for Spanish-speaking students in prekindergarten to fifth grade at Bellaire and Shady Oaks elementary schools, officials said.
Irving schools provide bilingual courses in Spanish and Vietnamese to about 3,500 students, and ESL courses for another 3,500 students.
Other districts, including Carroll, Keller, Grapevine-Colleyville and Northwest, immerse such students in regular classrooms.
“I like the immersion program because they’re in there with me all day long, as opposed to being pulled out – that singles them out a little bit more,” said Jo Ann Oster, a Roanoke Elementary School kindergarten teacher who is trained in ESL.
At the same time, educators said, the students must be provided with a variety of support – teachers skilled in working with them and materials that are hands-on and suited for memorizing a new vocabulary.
“We don’t want them out there sinking,” said Brown of Roanoke Elementary School, where all of the 26 Spanish-speaking students passed TAAS this year. “They’re going to swim,” Brown said. “You will succeed, and we’re right here to make sure and support and provide those floaties for you. “
Staff writers Matt Frazier, Raul Caballero, Michelle Melendez and Rosanna Ruiz contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.
Yamil Berard, (817) 685-3813