Facing the Language Barrier

Students, teachers struggle to cope with changes in bilingual education

As science teacher Patsy Walsh reviews a recent vocabulary test in her 6th-grade class at Darwin Elementary, Germain Aquino sits before her, understanding nothing.

The 12-year-old boy who emigrated with his family last fall from Mexico spins like a top at his desk, looking to other pupils for clues, but they are busy following along, correcting their tests. Germain had 12 of 13 wrong; he guessed at the answers.

Germain finally understands something–instructions to copy the lesson from the chalkboard–but only because Walsh has asked another pupil to translate.

“Copian lo que esta en la pizarra,” the pupil tells Germain. “Ellos dicen la derecha y la izquierda. Despues yo les explico.”

Just five years ago, pupils like Germain would likely have spent their grammar school years in bilingual education. But since 1998, Chicago has tried to put children into the mainstream more quickly, limiting bilingual education to three years, with a fourth and fifth if needed.

Chicago’s rules have left elementary schools like Darwin with no full-time bilingual education classroom after 5th grade. Funding cuts and capacity enrollment at the 1,140-pupil school in Logan Square on the Northwest Side also played a role in that reduction.

The city’s three-year cap, also a state goal, is particularly difficult for immigrant pupils like Germain who enter the system for the first time in later grades. Germain must learn the dominant language in three years because in high school, all courses are in English.

In 45 minutes of science, Germain experiences perhaps five minutes of learning. Teacher and pupil are both frustrated.

“I feel like fear. … It’s English and I don’t understand it and I feel nervous,” Germain said in Spanish.

“Oh gosh, it’s hard. They are lost. They are totally lost with me in here,” Walsh, 41, said of the Spanish-speaking pupils. “If we’re with a population like this, we should have Spanish classes. They should give us some training.”

Educational hurdles

The dual struggle–for students like Germain to learn and for teachers like Walsh to educate–will be one of the most pressing challenges in public education as the nation’s Latino population continues to swell and states battle over how much bilingual education, if any, should be afforded immigrant children.

The Bureau of the Census said last month Latinos have equaled or surpassed blacks as the nation’s largest minority. And by 2025, one of every four students in U.S. schools will be Hispanic, a White House report said last year.

But schools have not found a way to accommodate their needs; achievement by Latinos is among the nation’s worst. Their dropout rate, also the worst, more than doubles the rate for African-Americans.

Sitting in Walsh’s 6th-grade science class is a snapshot of the future.

On a recent day, Room 301 was abuzz with Spanish, English and even a little Spanglish. Several pupils were born in Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Others were born in the U.S., including African-American students, and don’t speak Spanish at all. One was born in Mongolia and another in Poland.

Language standards

At Darwin, 33 percent of bilingual education pupils met the three-year goal, set by the board of education, of English proficiency.

In Chicago, 48 percent of elementary and high schoolers in the program were placed in regular classes after three years.

Last year, 1,649 students couldn’t pass out of bilingual education even after five years–but they were mainstreamed anyway. In the prior year, there were 2,478 such students.

The state, with its tougher standards, paints an even more grim picture.

Only 6 percent of Chicago’s limited-English students scored well enough on a state reading test to be deemed ready for regular classrooms, a category that promises an 80 percent chance of academic success. Statewide, the number of bilingual education students deemed ready for “transitioning” was also low: 8 percent of 3rd-to-5th graders, 3 percent of 6th-to-8th graders, and 0 percent of high school students.

The daunting challenges are compounded by how the Third World’s schools leave immigrant parents ill-prepared for the high-stakes pressure cooker engulfing U.S. schools.

At Darwin, 3116 W. Belden Ave., Principal Graciela Shelley said she is confident her school will meet the challenge. In fact, she imposed the three-year goal well before the board did, she said.

Overcoming obstacles

She cited socioeconomic factors as her biggest obstacle–the low income and education levels of immigrant parents who work long hours in factories and service jobs.

“Honestly, anybody can learn a second language, and the reason the children don’t speak a second language as fast as expected is because of exposure. You learn a second language through friends and neighbors much faster, but the kids don’t have it here. You play with a kid across the street, and they and their mother speak Spanish. It’s like a little ghetto. If you take that kid and put them in Winnetka, they’ll learn English much faster because English is spoken there,” said Shelley, who was the district’s bilingual education coordinator for 15 years and is a native of Chile.

Charles Darwin, the 19th Century scientist who observed the arch importance of the principle of the “survival of the fittest,” would have admired the adaptations at his namesake school. Each 6th-grade teacher has developed a way to survive in his or her mini tower of Babel.

In Walsh’s classroom, for example, the truly bilingual pupil is king, doubling as a teacher’s aide, providing translations. Though the kids enjoy this, Walsh feels uneasy because the young translators are taking time and focus from their own lessons.

The teachers adapt too. Across the hall, writing teacher Mary Anne Calle, an Oklahoma native who began learning Spanish after marrying her Colombia-born husband, sends e-mails to her spouse from the classroom asking him to translate exercises and tests–gratis, of course.

And Cecily Langford, 26, a social studies teacher, often uses her American-accented Spanish to teach, but for difficult instructions, her bilingual pupils help. “It’s like juggling and dancing all day every day,” Langford said. “This is a way to survive.”

Even when pupils like Germain finally understand something, their shortcomings re-emerge quickly.

After he finally understood that he was to copy the chalkboard assignment, Germain erred again. He misspelled the strange new words: “interpet” and “hypothezis,” even though the words had been written out on the chalkboard.

Similar errors are made by the boy next to him, Pablo Rivera, 12, who also emigrated from Mexico a year ago: He writes “conpure” [compare] and “hypothsis.”

Native language skills

The root of the problem is that Germain and other immigrant pupils have poor skills in their native language, teachers said.

Each morning, Germain and the four other new arrivals receive 90 minutes of bilingual instruction from Maria Paz Martinez, a gregarious teacher from Spain.

Martinez is the only bilingual teacher–a second was recently eliminated due to funding cuts–who works with the “English language learners” in 6th, 7th and 8th grades, for up to three 40-minute periods a day.

Even with such instruction, Germain, Pablo and the others make slow progress.

Germain is the classroom stoic. His expression makes him seem inattentive. But once conversing in Spanish, he is earnest, engaging and energetic. He is even game to recite the few words he knows in English but never says in class–“I’m sorry,” “please,” “thank you.”

His dual personality surprises teachers.

Pablo is the bewildered one, having moved a year ago with his family from rural Mexico, a rancho in Zacatecas. He seems to be in the mild stages of linguistic and culture shock. He’s among the most quiet in class, and his speech sometimes falls to a whisper.

Martinez gives an easy enough assignment to the four 6th graders present, including Pablo and Germain.

But none can do it: She asks them to write, in Spanish, a summary of a story, any story, and eventually settles on the Holocaust. But their papers remain blank. They just sit quietly and occasionally look up to Martinez.

“Their levels are very, very low–even in Spanish–at least two or three grade levels below,” Martinez said. “That’s why they’re having so many problems. Like right now, they have no idea what to do. They haven’t written one word. They don’t know anything about the Holocaust.”

Learning curve

At home, Germain’s father, Jesus Aquino, 34, is confident his son will learn English soon enough.

“It depends on how much they want to learn,” Jesus Aquino said in Spanish. “He is learning little by little. I hope he is speaking English in a year. Kids learn other languages faster. They have a more open mind. And they don’t have to worry about a job.”

Starting anew in Chicago hasn’t been easy. The Aquino family home, a block from Darwin, caught fire in early December, so the family moved to another residence eight blocks away, which places Germain closer to Mozart School. Still, he walks nearly a mile to Darwin because he likes the teachers.

The Aquinos–dad, mom and three children–now live in the second-floor flat of a house shared with Jesus Aquino’s cousin’s family, who live on the first floor.

In this extended family, the cousin’s wife, Luz Maria Julio, watches Germain after school while Jesus Aquino and his wife work until midnight at local factories.

The Aquinos left Veracruz, Mexico, last year because the father earned only 70 pesos a day, or about $7.50, picking fruits and vegetables.

Everyone in Germain’s home speaks Spanish. The only time he practices English is when he watches television or plays with English-speaking friends.

Julio tries to help Germain with his homework. She is nurturing but dumbfounded by the math assignment. Julio has lived in Chicago for seven years, but her 10-hour-a-day factory job kept her from studying English. Now she is a full-time homemaker taking English classes at nearby Mozart.

At Julio’s direction, Germain pulled out a math book at the dining table in the sparsely furnished apartment.

“Sacale el libro,” Julio, 29, said.

It is a long silence as they look over the math book. It’s an embarrassing moment for both.

“No entiendes algunas palabras?” Julio asked.

“Son en ingles,” Germain said.

Germain can’t understand the metric conversion exercises because they are in English. Neither can Julio. He can’t do the work.

Some minutes later, Germain pulls out his report card, written in Spanish, containing grades from the second quarter. He gets mostly Cs, except for a B in Spanish reading and an A in health. For all their struggles, Julio has found something pleasing.

“For such a small time in school, he’s doing more or less well,” Julio said.

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