How bilingual classes became educational apartheid

A FORLORN JOKE makes the rounds of faculty rooms in our public schools. It goes like this: If immigrant kids want to learn English, they better return to Seoul, Canton, Ho Chi Minh City or Hermosillo, but don’t expect them to read, write or speak English in San Francisco’s public schools.

The kicker is that this joke is told by teachers from Korea, China, Vietnam or Mexico who have been recruited to teach here by the San Francisco Unified School District.

With Alice in Wonderland reasoning, the gurus of bilingualism claim that capability in English is the goal of their program. But they consign foreign-born youngsters into classes presented in the languages of the countries they left behind.

In my high school, students are able to take 11 required courses, except physical education, in their native languages.

The school board long ago relegated certificated English teachers to “not part of program need” status. Upon retirement, they are replaced with foreign-born colleagues, some with only tenuous command of English, no California teaching credentials and no requirement to pass the CBEST qualifying exams.

Credentialed graduates from California universities know better than to apply for probationary employment in San Francisco public schools.

As of September, my high school has been told to offer classes in English and American literature via translations in Chinese and Spanish. Similar texts are projected in Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Tagalog and Russian translations in future years.

The textbook industry is ecstatic at the prospect of hundreds of “reissue in translation” contracts. Think of the profits, “Romeo and Juliet” in Cantonese, “The Joy Luck Club” in Spanish, “The Odyssey” in Tagalog, etc.

Watch your wallets, taxpayers.

English teachers are fit to be tied. We know English is the key to upward mobility for newcomer students, but we are forbidden to teach them. Are we paranoid to suspect that the power brokers of San Francisco, a tourist town, need a semi-educated work force, prepared only to flip burgers and bed sheets?

Many believe that the Bilingual Department presents obstacles to learning English. It is regarded as a politically empowered hiring hall, providing paychecks for adults rather than realistic education for children.

The proof is in the pudding. Our test scores are embarrassing. Colleges are forced to design grade level grammar courses for their students. Industry must re-educate entry level employees. Taxpayers are forced to support a discredited system while they seek private, parochial or home schooling for their children and, worse yet, nobody is able to conjugate the verb “to be” any more.

I love teaching. This is my 23rd year with the San Francisco public schools, but it is embarrassing to be part of a wasteful and ethnocentric system, a global laughing stock.

It is embarrassing to see politicians pander to special interests and educrats chasing after funding sources like pigeons after seed.

It is embarrassing to witness educators terrorized by the phrase “out of compliance.” Often being out of compliance is the last best hope for public schools.

Bilingualism is universally recognized as the ability to master more than one language. Here the word has been perverted into a linguistic apartheid system where the immigrant student, with no opportunity to make a native-born friend or ride the fast-track train, is the ultimate loser.

Jane Kennedy teaches English at Galileo High School.

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