Unlike some states with numerous non-English-speaking students, Florida and Palm Beach County are rising above the immersion vs. bilingual education debate.
Immersion simply means that every subject is taught in English. Teachers use simple language and imaginative lessons to help students grasp English while learning academic subjects. But opponents have criticized immersion as a ”sink-or-swim” approach in which students too often fall behind or drown.
While bilingual education provides intensive English-language instruction, students learn some subjects in their native language. In theory, those students eventually won’t need the crutch. In reality, say critics, students may master other subjects but never really master English.
In June, a 60 percent vote officially ended California’s 30-year-old bilingual education experiment. Proposition 227 limited students to a year of special English classes before placing them in the mainstream. As elsewhere, however, California’s debate still rages, with even Hispanics divided on the issue.
In Palm Beach County, more than 18,000 students come to school speaking little or no English. Students in the district speak 80 different languages or dialects. The state doesn’t dictate how to teach these students. Rather than get stuck in the debate, Palm Beach County and some other Florida public schools are emphasizing the value of a second language for all students.
As The Post reported Sunday, North Grade Elementary in Lake Worth, a city that is home to many recent immigrants, is offering a dual-language option, thanks to a $ 250,000-a-year, five-year federal grant. The program helps students maintain their native language, unlike the bilingual, steppingstone approach to learning English. Students should be able to speak and read in both English and Spanish by the time they leave fifth grade. Gove Elementary, a magnet school in Belle Glade, has had a similar program for three years.
More and more research is supporting this approach. Parents are excited. Still, with bilingual teachers as rare as small classes, the real problem isn’t curriculum but the quality of instruction. As is the case with phonics and whole language – another debate that won’t go away soon – so it is with immersion vs. bilingual education: Done right, either works.