Bilingual programs thriving

Parents backing efforts in schools

While opponents of bilingual education are basking in news from California that appears to support them, a much quieter movement is building in South Texas among affluent and low-income parents alike – to make sure their children know both English and Spanish.

“The upper class has always known and acknowledged the need for another language,” said Ellen Riojas Clark, a bicultural studies professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Now we’re seeing other people realizing this.”

In California, limited English speakers posted dramatically higher test scores two years after bilingual education was curtailed. Opponents of bilingual education say the test results only prove that children don’t need those programs.

But others, including Texas educators, say California’s numbers aren’t that clear-cut. And many Texas parents apparently support learning in two languages.

In districts as disparate as Alamo Heights – with its Spanish immersion program – and Edgewood – where students at Burleson Elementary say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning twice, in English and again as the jura mento a la bandera – dual-language programs are emerging.

At Bonham Elementary School in the San Antonio School District, many parents want the program to follow their kids into middle school.

The sentiment differs greatly from California. In 1998, voters approved Proposition 227, a measure that dramatically curtailed bilingual education. Instead, the state encouraged immersion in English.

After that vote, bilingual education supporters had predicted that Spanish-speaking children would perform miserably on state-mandated standardized tests. They didn’t. In some districts that abandoned bilingual education, the scores went up.

Supporters dispute those figures.

“What is occurring in California gives Texans very little to learn,” said Mara “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, executive director of the Intercultural Development Research Association, a group that studies education issues. “The state of California can learn a lot from the state of Texas, in terms of developing good bilingual education that helps students learn English and achieve academically.”

But while California’s action has spawned similar referendums in Arizona and Colorado, movements to do away with bilingual education have not sprouted here.

“I don’t get the impression that bilingual programs in Texas are as bad as they are in California,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur behind the measure.

One obstacle for opponents is that Texas does not have a way for residents to place measures on the ballot.

“In California, without the initiative process, nothing would have happened,” Unz said. “After what happened here, we would hope that the politicians would find the courage to introduce it.”

If Texas did have one, such a measure might very well succeed, said Joe Bernal, former state legislator and current member of the State Board of Education.

“An issue like that would bring out the worst in people rather than the best,” Bernal said.

On the other hand, politicians and businesses support knowing two languages. Both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore support bilingual education.

In South Texas, businesses are expanding into northern Mexico and advertising for bilingual workers. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s bilingual initiative, Imagnate San Antonio, has wide support.

Beyond the boardrooms, the drive for children to grow up bilingual is spreading. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley called for creating 1,000 dual-language immersion programs, where students learn both English and another language, in the next five years.

In addition to programs in Alamo Heights, Edgewood and San Antonio, dual-language is operating in the South San Antonio, Pearsall and Ysleta school districts. Next year, Northside is to start a dual-language pilot program at two elementary schools in response to a “growing interest,” said Pat Blattman, deputy superintendent for instruction.

North East offers only the more traditional bilingual focus, teaching subjects in a native language while easing English into the lessons.

“While we’re teaching them to read in Spanish, we’re going to have a strong English component,” said Elmosa Herrera, a bilingual specialist at Stahl Elementary. “You can’t have a program where you do all Spanish and then magically they’re going to learn English.”

In the dual-language programs, the ideal mix of students combines native Spanish and English speakers. From pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, the students go from having most of their lessons in Spanish to an equal mix of both languages.

At Burleson Elementary, Principal Delma Luna said her kindergarten class scored on the third-grade level in math and reading abilities.

“When they’re young, our kids pass the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) in Spanish,” she said. “By fourth grade, they can pass it in English or Spanish.”

But ironically, the parents often most resistant to dual-language efforts are those who speak Spanish as their first language. They remember the days when their tongue was something shameful.

“We have parents who say, ‘They already know Spanish,’ but what they know is conversational Spanish. They don’t know the academic language,” Luna said. “In December, we have a program where the children read to their parents. They read a book in Spanish and then they read a book in English. At that point, we don’t have to sell it to the parents. They sell it to each other.”

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