HISD eyes bilingual reforms

Trustees want rapid switch to English emphasized

Two Houston school trustees are proposing reforms in HISD’s bilingual education policy that emphasize “the ability to read, write and speak English as rapidly as possible.”

The proposal by Houston Independent School District trustees Gabriel Vasquez and Jeff Shadwick is scheduled for a preliminary board vote Thursday, but already is stirring controversy in the Hispanic community.

Under the proposal, students with a limited proficiency in English will be moved into English-speaking classes as soon as they can demonstrate proficiency in reading. In HISD, 58,000 students speak limited English.

“I don’t picture this as a radical change,” Shadwick said. “The multilingual department is already bound by law concerning how limited-English-proficient students are to be treated and educated.

“All this really does is tell the department that it is the sense of the community, the board, that English reading proficiency is an imperative, and it needs to be focused upon.”

Three legislators who view the proposal as “an advocacy vehicle for the English-only movement” have asked Superintendent Rod Paige to withdraw the item from the board agenda. The letter is signed by state Sen. Mario Gallegos Jr. and state Reps. Jessica Farrar and Joe Moreno, all Houston Democrats.

“This thing on the surface looks good, but it’s so full of distortion and innuendo it’s unbelievable,” said Gallegos, whose mother, Olga, is a school trustee. “This is a vehicle for your anti-bilingual forces.”

An attorney with Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund raised legal concerns about the proposal after Gallegos asked the organization to review it.

State law requires every school district with 20 or more limited-English students to provide bilingual education or a special language program. Students can be transferred to an all-English program only after they reach the 40th percentile on a standardized test in English and meet other evaluation standards. Parents can opt to remove their children from a bilingual program; in HISD, more than 4,200 ask the district to immerse their children in English.

In reviewing the mission statement in HISD’s proposal, MALDEF attorney Cynthia Cano questioned the phrase that the district should “provide non-English language instruction to those who desire it.” She said an “opt-in” program that requires parents to ask for bilingual education is questionable under the law.

Vasquez said the organization is misinterpreting the intent and substance of the policy.

The non-English language instruction outlined in the mission statement would be provided for students who only speak English and want to learn another language, he said. Students who can’t speak English would still be provided instruction in their native language and in English, he said.

“We are not suggesting English-only, and we are not suggesting an opt-in program at all,” said Vasquez. “(MALDEF’s) interpretation is just off-base completely.”

Vasquez and Shadwick were appointed in January by board President Laurie Bricker to devise a new policy on bilingual education.

Unlike a recent proposal in the Spring Branch school district, the plan before the HISD board does not limit the number of years that a student can remain in a bilingual education program.

However, it does say that HISD staff members will report to the board about “the feasibility of limiting the number of years” spent in bilingual education.

Spring Branch Superintendent Hal Guthrie discovered the sensitivity of the issue in April when he unveiled a proposal that would move all Spanish-speaking students, except recent immigrants, into English-speaking classes by the end of the third grade.

The reaction in the Hispanic community was so explosive that Guthrie withdrew the proposal and referred it to a citizens’ committee for further review. Now, the controversy has shifted to HISD, where critics say that Vasquez and Shadwick should have conducted public meetings and gathered citizen input before drafting a proposal.

Vasquez, one of three Hispanic board members, said the public will have an opportunity for input before the second and final vote on the proposal, likely in July.

“We are open to input,” Vasquez said, “but at the same time, this is our elected responsibility to look at these issues and to come up with a proposal.”

When trustees consider the proposal on first reading Thursday, the only other two Hispanic board members, Olga Gallegos and Esther Campos, won’t be in attendance. They have plans to attend an out-of-state conference.

Olga Gallegos said she has concerns similar to those raised by her son. Campos said she is asking Vasquez to consider additions to the proposal. She said the district, in its policy, should emphasize an acceptance of diverse cultures and should value the home language.

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