NEW BRITAIN—Most school board members are satisfied with the bilingual education program, which was recently reviewed because of concerns that students were spending too much time learning in their native languages.

However, board President Paul Amenta said he will keep an eye on the program’s results.

“I’m still concerned,” Amenta said. “I’m not satisfied we’re doing all we can do to exit students. Hopefully, it’s an ongoing review. We’ll revisit it from time to time.”

In July, school officials promised to review bilingual education after a report showed a drop in the number of students leaving the program during the 1997-98 school year, comared with the previous three years. Some board members were concerned that some students were spending as many as seven years in the program.

Of the 1,070 students enrolled in Spanish, Polish and Lao bilingual education programs last year, 148 — or 14 percent — left the program after meeting the criteria for increased English proficiency. During the previous three years, that percentage ranged from 17 to 20.

The district uses a transitional approach, which means bilingual instructors use the student’s native language and gradually introduce English until the student is ready for regular, all-English classes.

Of the 148 students who came out of the program last year, 54 percent had spent one to three years in bilingual education and 45 percent had spent four to seven years in it. Those numbers are higher than comparable statewide averages, which show that 90 percent of all bilingual education students leave the program within three years.

However, board member Steven Horowitz said he is satisfied with the program, since the vast majority — 81 percent — are out of it within four years. Also, each student is evaluated annually by district staff through testing, grades and interviews.

“There are not people languishing in this program. Eighty percent exit after four years and they are evaluated every year,” said Horowitz, chairman of the board’s curriculum committee, which reviewed the program this summer.

“I think the concerns are less pedagogical and more philosophical,” said board Vice President Peter Rosa. The program, he added, was reviewed and revised just a few years ago to “tighten it up somewhat.”

“You don’t want to tighten it up so much that you hurt people,” Rosa said.

Nationally, there has been a renewed debate on the effectiveness of bilingual education since the June referendum in California in which voters virtually abolished the program. That referendum requires students to stay in immersion-type bilingual programs for only one year instead of learning in their native language for an indefinite period of time.

Although it is being legally challenged, the California decision has led other states to question whether to reform or eliminate bilingual education programs.

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