Bilingual Program Falling Short

State's ambitious goals create problems in urban districts

Two years after Connecticut clamped down on bilingual education, school districts are struggling merely to keep track of students — let alone prepare them to speak and learn in English.

An annual review of bilingual programs by the state Department of Education has also found growing numbers of students whose families frequently move between school districts, making learning difficult. According to statistics from the 1999-2000 school year, the number of students in bilingual education who met new state standards for speaking English fell from 13 percent to 7.4 percent.

Looming next year is a legislature-imposed deadline requiring eligible students to be out of bilingual education programs within 30 months — the equivalent of three school years. After this, school districts must offer intensive tutoring to students who haven’t learned English within that period.

“The decisions that were made regarding bilingual education were political decisions. They are not the best for the students,” said Tomas Z. Miranda, supervisor of bilingual education in New Haven. He estimates that 90 percent of New Haven’s approximately 1,500 bilingual students will not meet state English standards when the three-year rule kicks in for eligible children next year — requiring the city to set up extensive additional programs to speed their transition to learning in English.

There are about 13,000 bilingual students in 16 school districts in Connecticut. Most speak Spanish, though a relative handful speak other languages, such as Albanian, Kurdish, Laotian and Polish.

State Rep. Nancy Beals, D-Hamden, said the legislature was forced to act in 1999 because too many bilingual students were failing. She said districts should be using some of the millions of dollars they are getting for reading instruction on bilingual education.

“There were children who were staying in the program for seven and eight years. We don’t see the children who have been in bilingual programs getting the good jobs or going to college in the numbers that we would like to see,” said Beals, a key supporter of the 1999 legislation. “We want to try to turn this around.”

School administrators in the 16 districts say they will be hard-pressed to live up to the law without more than the $2.2 million in annual state aid. For example, the average third-grade bilingual student must take five formal tests to demonstrate English mastery.

“The intention of the statute was to address the needs of bilingual students,” said Abigail L. Hughes, associate commissioner of education. “They were lagging behind, they had high dropout rates. … The problem is that there is no additional funding to support these new initiatives. The districts are really struggling.”

The lack of a statewide tracking system to follow students as they move, whether it’s from Hartford to Waterbury or Puerto Rico, makes it especially difficult, Hughes said. “Often, the districts don’t know where the student went, and the students don’t let them know,” she said.

State law requires bilingual students who don’t meet the English mastery standard within three school years to be given intensive language instruction, including summer school and after-school tutoring. The law requires that an average of 50 percent of instruction be in English. Within a year, students must also take the Connecticut Mastery Test, annual exams given to fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders.

“This smacks up against second-language learning research, which clearly states that it takes about seven years before a student reaches academic maturity regarding English,” said Anthony S. Amato, Hartford school superintendent.

New state figures, however, show that some students can move more quickly out of bilingual education. Among those who successfully left bilingual education in 1999-2000 and who stayed in the same school, it took an average of 3.3 years.

Amato pointed out another problem: It is difficult to find qualified bilingual teachers.

Most of the 673 bilingual teachers in the state have had little formal training in bilingual education. Among new bilingual teachers, more than 90 percent received their initial certification through deferrals of testing and course requirements, state officials says. Fairfield University is the only teacher-preparation program in the state that offers a graduate degree for bilingual teachers.

This summer, the state is creating a special eight-week summer certification program for bilingual teachers, with the hope that the supply of teachers will increase, said Valerie F. Lewis, state higher education commissioner.

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