Some children can learn a second language quickly. Others struggle no matter how much they buckle down.
Radhames Reyes knows that all too well. One of the Puerto Rican surgeon’s sons learned English easily and graduated with honors from the University of Central Florida. The other just completed special tutoring in English at Valencia Community College in a last-ditch effort to pass the state’s mandated high-school competency test.
Thousands of high-school seniors whose native language is English fail that test each year. Imagine the odds for students who arrive here from Puerto Rico, Haiti, Vietnam, Brazil or somewhere else.
It’s a miracle that almost one-fourth of those Orange County students pass the test when they’ve been here fewer than two years.
The state classifies those students as having “limited English proficiency,” or LEP. It’s predictable that they would have the highest dropout rate.
Research shows that two years of English instruction isn’t enough for most students to meet rigorous requirements in science or history. Yet that’s the district’s average time frame to help LEP kids learn English.
It’s a revolving door to mediocrity.
Too much is at stake. One-fifth of Orange County’s students aren’t yet fluent in English — the vast majority are Hispanic.
Sink or swim won’t work — despite the politics of the English-only lobby that likes to hark back 100 years, when immersion in English was all that was offered. Conveniently forgotten: Most Americans — including non-immigrants — never got past grade school back then. In today’s technological era, America’s strength lies in its diversity as markets open up. LEP kids offer tremendous potential.
Reyes, who heads the Parent Leadership Council that represents the concerns of the district’s LEP students, gets a dozen calls weekly from frustrated parents. They want their kids to become fluent in English, but they worry that the district has counted almost exclusively on immersion for older students in science, history and other courses. It’s a recipe for failure.
A state audit of LEP programs this year put Orange County schools on notice. They can’t keep letting kids sink.
Orange County schools now must have a bilingual teacher — or, at minimum, a classroom aide — fluent in English and whatever language is spoken by at least 15 LEP students in a class. That’s usually Spanish, Vietnamese, Portuguese or Haitian Creole. Superintendent Ron Blocker, who met with 300 parents of LEP students recently, has tapped a group of educators to decide by February how to help LEP students graduate.
It’s about time, but gut feelings from teachers, principals or area superintendents can’t replace solid research into language learning.
Short-term bilingual programs can help older students keep up with science or history as they learn English.
The ideal, though, are dual-language programs in which English-only speakers also benefit. Such programs can deliver results even when most of the students are poor and receive free or reduced-price lunch. Coral Way Elementary, which the state rated an A this year, in Miami-Dade County is one of those schools.
The district has procrastinated for a decade and nickel-and-dimed LEP kids. No surprise that the failure rate for Hispanic students has soared. No more.