The ranks of Spanish-speaking residents in Idaho are growing, as the Post Register noted in a front-page story last week.

Nearly one of every 14 Idahoans today is Hispanic.

In 20 years, it will be one of every 10.

Yet a barrier of language separates these two groups.

On one side are people who go about their lives often oblivious to the changing culture around them.

On the other is a group for whom getting health care, basic services, going shopping or even dealing with police and the courts is a struggle.

That works a hardship for both groups.

Spanish-speaking people have limited economic opportunities and choices.

But the state as a whole suffers when the children of Spanish-speaking families drop out of school – and too many of them do.

There really is no debate about whether this new wave of immigrants wants or needs to learn English. The questions center on how best to accomplish that goal. Federal and state agencies – along with private groups – devote considerable time and effort helping children acquire English skills. In Idaho, that includes programs like Migrant Head Start, which teaches English skills to preschoolers, and limited English proficiency programs in the public schools, which allow students to take classes in both English and Spanish.

The limited English proficiency program supplements local district programs,
and it’s the local schools who design the programs. Some students receive tutors. Others are enrolled in full-blown bilingual courses.

But bilingual education bothers some people. They’re anxious that the system won’t promote English speaking. In its place will be a nation of separatists, not the melting pot their ancestors encountered in the last century.

That anxiety led California voters to eliminate their bilingual education program two years ago. Since then, the state has seen some surprisingly positive results, at least in the early elementary grades. Test scores climbed when critics of this new system feared the opposite would occur.

It’s too early to draw conclusions and, as The New York Times noted, smaller class sizes and altered curriculum also explain these outcomes.

Hispanic educators in Idaho question this “sink or swim” approach. One of their most difficult tasks is persuading young Spanish-speaking students to remain in school when they feel alienated. So these educators suspect the improved California test scores may reflect a smaller group of people still in school. Those who couldn’t perform in the new system simply left.

For the moment, let California experiment. Idaho needs to focus on improving and expanding what assistance it does lend to this growing segment of its population.

Too many Hispanics lag behind in Idaho schools -and language is the reason.
Educators say the number of Hispanics who leave school in junior high – a statistic this state does not record – is dreadfully high.

Idaho should build on things that work. Expand preschool programs for children of Spanish-speaking families. When these children arrive in kindergarten, they’ll begin school on an equal footing.

Idaho would benefit enormously from having more bilingual teachers in its classrooms. Spanish-speaking students could look to these teachers not only for help navigating through classes, but also as positive role models. The state’s four colleges of education could launch and/or expand programs to attract more bilingual students into teacher preparation courses. The State Board of Education last year proposed something like this -but the Legislature rejected it. The idea will be back when the Legislature convenes in January.

It’s Idaho’s destiny to become more diverse. Tearing down barriers that separate people because of their language is one way Idaho can build a more promising future.

Comments are closed.