Bridging The Language Gap

Educators and parents said Orange County schools do a good job in some ways, but it's hit and miss.

Orange County schools do a better job at bilingual education than some surrounding counties, but they still lack a strong philosophy on how to educate non-English-speaking students.

That was the consensus of a group of educators and parents who met for an informal roundtable organized by Orange County School Board member Judge “Rick” Roach last week.

It was generally agreed that Orange County elementary schools offer a generally solid bilingual education program that helps young students master literacy in their native language as part of a transition to English.

Such programs, however, are sporadic in middle schools and nonexistent in high schools, even though many older students arrive not knowing a lick of English, said Evelyn Rivera, a leader in the Orange County Democratic Party.

“Those kids are sinking,” Rivera said.

Schools that are most successful with non-English-speaking students are those with a strong commitment to bilingual education, educators and parents at the meeting said.

Tildenville Elementary was held up as an example where students from other cultures feel motivated because of such a commitment.

“They feel warm and welcome,” said Sister Ann Kendrick of the Apopka Farmworkers Ministry.

However, the school district as a whole lacks a strong and consistent philosophy on bilingual education, Kendrick said. Schools vary in their approach or shift gears whenever there is new leadership, she said.

Attacks on bilingual education have rocked other states, such as California, and the same could happen in Orange County, Kendrick said.

“We may get caught up in a polarizing battle,” she said.

The debate over bilingual education is complex. Even many experts disagree over how rapid the transition from native languages to English should be.

The discussion at last week’s meeting reflected that diversity of opinion.

“If we don’t teach them in their native language, we’re creating dropouts. That’s the bottom line,” said Sonia Warner, principal at Tildenville Elementary.

For parent Alain Wichner, the bottom line is that students end up fluent in English, not “Spanglish,” as he put it.

“I’m paying for my children to be educated in English,” he said.

Roach said he could not promise immediate strides in bilingual education, but he said the information he gathered will be useful to him as a School Board member.

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