BROWNSVILLE, Tex.—FOR Carmen Rosas, teaching fourth grade to a group of Hispanic children here has become a game of musical chairs. Each school year, she is forced to divide her class into different rows; those students who speak English well separated by rows from those who don’t. She teaches the class one row at a time. When she changes subjects, the students whose English is better in that subject switch rows.
Some change seats five, six times a day. Mrs. Rosas, meanwhile, frantically paces up and down the rows. “It gets a little hectic,” she says, slightly drawn.
The classes, as Mrs. Rosas is quick to concede, move slowly. She must teach everything three or four times and this, inevitably, leaves many students idle. But Mrs. Rosas’s problem is common to all teachers in Brownsville and to all public schools in Texas alone the Mexico border.
Along that 1,248-mile swath, hundreds of Mexican children each week cross into Texas border towns — some legally, some not — and the United States Supreme Court has ruled that schools must teach them, whether or not they are legal, and Federal courts have mandated that the method must be bilingual education. School officials along the border say that method is failing; that their schools are so overwhelmed with children who do not speak English that education sometimes takes a backseat to simple communication.
The problem is spreading past the border. As the shattered peso turned border town economies into chaos, the tide of aliens from Mexico flowed north. As a result, there are now 260,000 children in the state in bilingual education, twice as many as three years ago. Tests show that the vast majority of those children never develop the most minimal English skills.
“We’re not handling these children’s needs,” said William Kirby, deputy commissioner of the Texas Education Agency. “No, we’re not satisfied with what we’re doing with bilingual education.”
Mr. Kirby said the problem was compounded by a political issue: illegal aliens. So far, the state estimates that about 30,000 “illegals” have enrolled in Texas schools. These children do not make up a large percentage of those in the state, Mr. Kirby said, but they nonetheless represent nearly one-eighth of the state’s bilingual-education load. That alone costs Texas $50 million to $75 million each year.
Mr. Kirby maintains that the Federal Government, because it is not succeeding in guarding the gates to the border, should pick up the tab for teaching illegal alien children, and almost every educator and legislator in Texas agrees. They warn that yet another crisis in education will develop should no help arrive.
“We can’t cope with all these students,” says Representative E. (Kika) de la Garza of Mission, Tex., a Democrat who has fought unusuccessfully for Federal aid. “The way things are, eventually we’re going to have a class of people that is below the norm of the education spectrum.”
In many parts of Texas, it already has evolved into a serious problem. In San Antonio, for instance, so many children are arriving from Mexico that now one-sixth of all students there take bilingual education. In Houston, the shortage of bilingual teachers is so severe that the schools offer such teachers annual bonuses of $2,000 — and still cannot attract enough.
But nowhere is the problem of bilingual education more severe than on the border, and in Brownsville in particular. Here, bilingual education, of necessity, is a major part of public education. Nine of every ten children who enroll in kindergarten speak little English, or none at all. A third of the city’s 30 000 students are aliens from Mexico, including about 2,000 who are in this country illegally.
School officials say the influx started gradually a few years ago, and accelerated sharply last year, and Brownsville, long among the state’s poorest cities, is now in the midst of a crippling fiscal crisis generated by the devaluation of the peso.
As a result, the city has little money to spend on its schools. The most visible problem so far has been an unprecedented overcrowding of classrooms, which last year forced the school districtto set up portable classrooms at a rate of one every two weeks. World War II barracks from a nearby naval base were trucked in and pressed into service.
This fall, a new elementary school must open its door with only half the building completed. The school will have have no adminstrative office; the principal will work out of a classroom.
“We just don’t have the resources,” said Raul Besteiro, the district’s superintendent. “We’re diluting what little we have to educate these kids from Mexico. It’s not far to the kids in the community.”
“The real culprit is the Federal Government,” be continued. “They’re letting all those people come into this country, and we have to pay for it.”
Mr. Besteiro says many longtime residents, many of whom themselves once immigrated from Mexico, deeply resent the new aliens, and especially the illegal aliens. He points out that even though the number of illegal aliens is not huge here, just the 460 new ones who enrolled last year cost the district more than $ 1 million.
TEACHERS and principals complain that such children are particularly difficult to teach. Many of them come to school in the middle of the year, some 12 years old or older with little or no prior education — and no English skills.
Some are so unfamiliar with their new environment, teachers say, that they must be shown even the most rudimentary of daily etiquette: how to stand in line, wait for bells, and even use bathrooms.
“You get a kid like that who knows almost nil,” says Angel Martinez, principal at Vermillion Elementary School, “and the powers that be tell you, you have to bring him up to a certain level by such and such a date. We know we can’t do that.”
But there are other sides to the issues of bilingual education and illegal aliens in Brownsville. There is, for example, Elvira Reyna. A soft-spoken but determined woman, Mrs. Reyna waged an extensive court battle here three years ago to get her son, Jose, into school. Both she and Jose are illegal aliens and until 1980, Texas banned such children from public schools.
Now Jose, 10 years old, is in school, but he is two years behind. Four of Mrs. Reyna’s other children, meanwhile, started school on time. They are United States citizens, with a different father.
“I’m proud he is in school,” Mrs. Reyna said through an interpreter. “But I don’t think it’s fair what has happened to him. We have lived here for years, we pay taxes, we are residents here.”
Then there is the side given by Elizabeth Flores and her 14-year-old twin sister, Ruth. Neither is an illegal aliens, but when they came here from Mexico with their family two years ato, they could speak no English. Now, Elizabeth has mastered it so well that she won this year’s city English spelling bee. But Ruth, for reasons of her own, has refused to learn the language. She is struggling in school.
Sitting in the family’s living room, Elizabeth shows off her lucid English to a visitor. Her sister is silent. “She won’t tell us why she won’t speak English,” Elizabeth said. “But we know there are a lot of teachers who keep putting her down for it. That happens to a lot of kids here.”
Such conflicts, though worrisome to both local and state educators, are nonetheless state law prohibited teachers from speaking Spanish on school grounds except in foreign-language courses. The state man-dated bilingual education only 10 years ago and later expanded it only under pressure from Federal courts.
Some educators suggests, and many Hispanic group leaders insist, that such reluctance may be one reason Texas is now grappling with problems in bilingual education. Hispanic leaders point out with considerable bitterness that the state allocates only about $9 million each year toward bilingual education. “Getting any help for these kids is like pulling teeth,” said Johnny Mata, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
In the meantime, Brownsville and border cities like it are forced to struggle. And for teachers like Carmen Rosas, the game of musical chairs must go on.
Jonathan Dahl is a reporter for The Houston Chronicle.