A Tale of Two Tongues

Bilingual education needs boost

The decades-long national debate over bilingual education escalated here when the Denver Board of Education undertook an arduous redesign of its program. As a mother whose child was forced to stay in this program, I know its problems first-hand. I have seen some educators lose faith in our children’s abilities, demonstrated by the consistent watering down of curriculum.

One year before running for the board of education, I filed a motion to intervene in the bilingual section of the Keyes court case on desegregation.
Today, I raise my elected hand in favor of change.

It takes courage to make even minor changes. Many school boards consistently look the other way – perhaps out of fear of being caught in a political hotbed or of being called racist.

But Denver has 13,625 students with limited English, all at the mercy of a program that has failed to produce adequate English skills, let alone improve overall academic achievement.

So the board had little choice but to scrutinize the district’s efforts with an eye toward comprehensive change.

Lack of English attainment, coupled with dismal results when the children were tested in their own languages, made it even more obvious that something is terribly wrong.

Bilingual education was intended to provide a safe learning environment,
free of the ridicule children endured in an earlier incarnation of public education. Humiliated by teachers who slapped them, whacked their hands with rulers or washed their mouths out with soap when they didn’t speak English,
many such students dropped out at an early age.

To end this dehumanizing treatment, young people during the 1960s and ’70s demonstrated, demanding an effective and respectful bilingual program.

What went wrong? The idea behind the DPS program was to build on students’
native language skills while they gradually made the transition to English.

Over the years, however, many parents were dismayed to find that native language instruction continued almost exclusively. Recent DPS graduates have found themselves with embarrassingly inferior English and unable to find jobs.

Certainly, the program gave students a comfortable atmosphere – so cozy, in fact, that they were often afraid to leave that environment, thus isolating themselves from English-speaking students. In addition, they continually lost vital components of curriculum that they were denied by teachers.

Under the new program, a student will be eased out of the program after three years and close monitoring. Entry and exit from the program will be based on objective testing and a teacher’s judgment. Should the child be shown not ready, he or she will be kept in the program with an individual education plan.

At the time of the Keyes case, the Congress of Hispanic Educators intervened on behalf of bilingual education. But it focused more on adding teachers and other staff than on specific ways to meet the students’ needs.

So the program became the Big Pinata for adults, without producing any visible positive effect for students. Parents trying to remove their children from bilingual classrooms were often intimidated into leaving them so the numbers of students would justify the increased staff. Consequently,
far too many children spent most of their school years as hostages of a program that they were to have exited in two to three years.

The new plan would return control to parents. They will determine whether their child should even be in the program.

Many educators and paraprofessionals in the program are of the highest caliber. But too many complaints have been lodged about poorly trained teachers with inadequate background who couldn’t teach a classroom of students with various levels of language development.

Such teachers, assigned to these classrooms anyway because skilled instructors were lacking, were often unable to pass the required skills test within two years. But they were allowed to use the bilingual program as a springboard into regular DPS teaching ranks.

The new plan will increase training dramatically and will notify all unqualified teachers of summer training. If they don’t become fully qualified, they won’t teach in this program.

Other old concerns focus on not having the same curriculum in bilingual and regular classrooms; treating students as if they were inferior by lowering standards and expectations; and retaining students against the will of parents who wanted to remove them.

The new plan will mandate that all students receive the same curriculum. So those moving from native language instruction into “sheltered English”
classrooms and then into mainstream classes should have a seamless transition.

Late last year, a supporter of bilingual maintenance programs said a non-English-speaking child is better off in an inferior bilingual program than in an English-speaking classroom.

Twenty-five years of rising dropout rates and poor performance prove that to be false, as well as hazardous to the future of thousands of students.

At a time when parental involvement is crucial, parents of monolingual students must be encouraged to make key decisions in their children’s education – including whether those children should be in a bilingual program.

In turn, parents must be assured that their children will learn English as quickly as possible, so they can achieve at or above grade level in the curriculum and can master the skills to go on and complete college, gain employment or both.

What is the answer? Perhaps it lies in the new commitment of DPS to assess students’ language limitations, determine how best to help them and provide a program that will help them achieve in a regular classroom.

To that end, each teacher in the new English Language Acquisition program must be exceptionally skilled as a native language instructor, in English-language transition and in dealing with a variety of students’
needs, as well as in delivering the district’s curriculum with the same high standards and expectations for all.

The new plan calls for more funding, extensive oversight and more supplies and materials. A “newcomer center” will serve non-English-speaking students who have had limited education before coming to DPS.

The community can help in many ways. It can help students retain valuable native languages and help non-English-speaking parents learn English, so they can support their children’s education and overcome fears of dealing with an often overwhelming system. The community also can hold the district accountable for successfully educating its young people.

Our English Language Acquisition program must succeed for all students. The real measure of that will be when the program is no longer a source of controversy because it is doing a good job with the 13,625 bright and eager students.

Rita Montero is a member of the Denver Board of Education.

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