Hearing today on bill to cut ESL programs

Providence School Committee member Olga Noguera says the bill is dangerous because it would eliminate education for those who are trying to assimilate

PROVIDENCE – Advocates of bilingual education are expected to be out in force today at the State House as members of the Committee on Health, Education and Welfare consider a bill to dismantle bilingual education.

Rep. Myrna George, D-Exeter, and Rep. John Barr III, D-Lincoln, are sponsoring a bill that proposes to eliminate state reimbursement for English as a Second Language classes.

The bill’s arrival was met with immediate action by advocates of bilingual education and members of the Latino community in Providence, who met to discuss strategies to stop the bill in its tracks. The Providence School system offers bilingual and ESL programs. Pawtucket and Central Falls also offer ESL programs.

Before the legislation was proposed, the Providence School system had embarked on a review of its bilingual education program to determine its effectiveness and ways to improve.

Of Providence’s 26,485 students, 5,600 are enrolled in either bilingual education or ESL, according to the school department. Over 30 different languages are spoken in the schools. Half of the students in the Providence school system are Latino.

Providence School Committee member Olga Noguera said the bill is dangerous because it would eliminate education for children and adults limited in English who are trying to assimilate in their new country. Noguera met last month with Victor Capellan, director of the Student Registration Center, and Patricia Martinez, facilitator of family and community engagement, of the Providence School Department and a handful of teachers and activists to talk about the proposed bill.

George said her intent with the bill was simply to get a dialogue going about the merits of bilingual education and whether what is currently offered to children is effective. She said the bill is a draft and needs a lot of work.

“Maybe it wasn’t the most subtle approach, but it’s gotten everybody’s attention,” she said. “Everybody is trying to understand what the issues are.”

George said she based the bill on California’s Proposition 227, approved in 1998, which dismantled bilingual education and replaced it with English immersion programs. In immersion programs, children are taught solely in English. Waivers were granted to some school systems that wanted to continue with some form of bilingual education. According to published reports and newspaper accounts, within two years after legislation was passed test scores of the 1.4 million students enrolled in English immersion programs improved dramatically.

Martinez said that the movement against bilingual education comes at a time when Latinos constitute the fastest growing population in the United States. “We pose the biggest threat to legislators.”

“We are graduating from the universities. The best way to control us is to deny us an education,” Martinez said.

Martinez said the thinking behind the bill was narrow minded. “With our global economy, you would think people want to reinforce the knowledge of other languages and a child’s embrace of his own culture,” she said.

The Rhode Island legislators who back the dismantling of bilingual education are not alone. Legislators in Massachusetts and Colorado are considering whether to scrap their bilingual education programs. In November, Arizona decided to curtail bilingual education in favor of English immersion.

But while some members of the community are intent on the proposed bill by George and Barr, a bill introduced by Rep. Leon Tejada, D-Providence, and Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, proposes a transitional bilingual education program for any community with a school enrollment of 20 or more children with limited English-speaking ability. The bill proposes that the child be enrolled in a bilingual education program for three years or until the child achieves a level of English that will give him or her success in a mainstream classroom. The child would be tested annually on oral comprehension, speaking, reading and writing of English.

Tejada said that the proposed bill is a response to the “attack on bilingual education.”

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