Bilingual: A Survival Tool

An innovative program at Alfred A. Lima Sr. Elementary School in Providence aims to teach all students to be proficient in both Spanish and English.

PROVIDENCE—She didn’t listen to the radio yesterday morning because she didn’t want to hear the news. She had a feeling that the news from California would be bad.

“They say as California goes, so goes the nation, in terms of education reform,” said Socorro Gomez-Potter, sitting at her desk in her bright, clean principal’s office. Pop-gospel music played softly in the background.

“But I think with this, California is way off,” Gomez-Potter said. “I think they’ve been influenced by very prejudiced politics, by the politics of fear. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the children.”

Gomez-Potter has devoted herself to teaching, particularly to bilingual education – for about 20 years in California and for the past 3 years in Providence. Now, she fears, California’s voters, who on Tuesday approved a ballot initiative that would end bilingual education in their state’s public schools, may have undone years of good work.

“You cannot afford to say, ‘We’re going to do away with it,’ ” Gomez-Potter said. “You can legislate all you want, but it’s like the law stopping illegal immigrants. You can have the law, but you cannot stop the flow of people.”

Gomez-Potter, an expressive woman with jet-black hair, was born in Mexico. Her family moved to Southern California when she was 10. She had not spoken English till then. “We learned in a sink-or-swim kind of situation,” she said.

She swam. But her older sister, an honors student back in Mexico, was placed in a special-education class where she spent the day coloring. Bored and frustrated, she dropped out of school after the eighth grade.

Gomez-Potter continued with her schooling, went on to college and returned to her own elementary school as a bilingual instructor.

After years in the California system, weathering many cutbacks, she moved to Providence three years ago to become assistant principal at the Roger Williams Middle School. Last fall, she became principal of the Alfred A. Lima Sr. Elementary School, one of the city’s two new schools in the former Leviton factory complex.

What attracted her to Lima was the school’s program, unique in the state, of two-way bilingual education. In traditional bilingual programs, the pupils are taught in their native language (usually Spanish), while the curriculum gradually moves them toward proficiency in English.

In Lima’s two-way bilingual-education program, teachers work in teams of four: an English-dominant teacher (who may not know Spanish), a Spanish-dominant teacher, an ESL (English as a second language) teacher and an SSL (Spanish as a second language) teacher.

Half the pupils are native Spanish speakers, instructed in Spanish but learning English as a second language. The other pupils are native English speakers who are learning Spanish as a second language.

Gomez-Potter said research shows that pupils must learn literacy in their native language. “How can you teach a child to read a language that he or she cannot speak?” she said. “If you don’t, it retards the literacy process by at least three years.”

But pupils in traditional bilingual programs, she said, are often stigmatized. At the Lima school, where the goal is for all pupils to be in a two-way bilingual program – currently there are some traditional bilingual and some English-language classes, which are to be phased out – there are no stigmas because everyone is learning a foreign language.

In a first-grade classroom, Latino pupils will be learning to read in their native Spanish, but 25 percent of their instruction – science and social sciences – is conducted in English. Down the hallway, in another first-grade classroom, a mix of pupils – some white, some African-American, some Asian – learns reading and mathematics in English, science and social sciences in Spanish.

By the end of fifth grade, all pupils are expected to be proficient in both English and Spanish.

The Lima school is even developing a plan, the first in the state, to offer two-way bilingual education to the school’s 20 special-education pupils.

The school, in the city’s West End, has 730 pupils, almost all of whom live in poverty. Nearly 3 of 4 pupils speak Spanish at home. More than 1 of 10 has limited proficiency in English.

In Providence, there are more than 10,000 Latino students, making up nearly 40 percent of the student population. About 1 in 10 Providence students is in a bilingual-education program. Some 67 different languages are spoken in the students’ homes.

Statewide, only about 1 in 100 students is in a bilingual-education program, although about 1 in 20 attends some ESL classes.

Over the years, statistics on education of Latino students have been discouraging. About half the dropouts from the Providence schools have been Latinos. Test scores released earlier this year by the state Department of Education showed Latino students lagging behind others in most writing and mathematics tests.

Such gloomy statistics only intensify Gomez-Potter’s commitment to her work with the community’s Latino pupils.

“I feel I have been specially trained, prepared,” she said. “All of the difficulties I have experienced in my education, in my survival coming here from another country, have prepared me to meet their needs – social and cultural and language.”

Gomez-Potter knows that two-way bilingual education poses a real challenge for the staff. It’s much easier to run a traditional bilingual program – one teacher per class, responsible for all instruction. The two-way program requires lots of planning and teamwork.

The Lima school staff, Gomez-Potter said, is willing to rise to the challenge, and other schools, here and in California, could do the same.

“It’s expensive, it requires diligence in terms of implementation, you need to have a person in charge that has the understanding and the background and the love for what is being done here,” Gomez-Potter said. “I have a full staff of them! And I’m sure there are more out there.”

FAST FACTS Bilingual education is the use of two languages for instruction in schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs:

There are currently more than 2.8 million students nationally in elementary and secondary schools with limited English proficiency, an increase of 100 percent over the past 10 years.

Less than one in five teachers in bilingual programs are certified. Last year, 80 percent of school districts seeking bilingual teachers reported encountering significant problems finding trained candidates.

A 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision required schools to help limited-English proficient students understand school curriculums. The court said schools could try a variety of techniques, including English-as-a-second-language instruction, bilingual education or other techinques.

Although there are federal programs supporting bilingual education, there is no federal mandate requiring they be offered.

A federal law prohibits students from being placed into federal bilingual education programs on the basis of Hispanic surnames.

The five most common foreign language groups in schools are: Spanish; Vietnamese, Hmong, Cantonese and Cambodian.

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