Report Faults Bilingual Ed

Data Suggest Kids' Grasp of English Insufficient for Regular Classrooms

Despite a $361 million investment, only 4 percent of Limited English Proficient students in 1997-98 had learned enough English to transfer into regular classrooms, a report released Monday by the state Department of Education suggests.

It is a meager showing for so much money, opponents say.

But Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-west Phoenix, a staunch supporter of bilingual education, blasted state education officials for the children’s failures.

“They are supposed to be monitoring these programs. They have failed to do that,” Lopez said. “These programs do work, and they are mandated to make them work and try to correct failures, and they have not.”

The report on the status of English programs for kids who speak other languages does not bode well for bilingual education, already immersed in controversy nationwide.

That is, if the data is correct.

Much of it is skewed, says Laura Penny, head of communications for the Education Department, because some reports from the schools were riddled with mistakes.

High school districts reported having bilingual students in kindergarten-through-third grade programs, for instance, and elementary schools reported bilingual students in high school.

Other schools simply never made a report, even though the filing deadline was extended three times.

And while schools statewide reported having 111,000 students with limited English proficiency, they listed 112,000 children in English acquisition programs – 1,000 more than would qualify.

Even the reported amount of money spent on the programs might not be right.

Of the $361 million, $106 million is federal funding, and $15 million is from state coffers. The other $240 million comes from grants, donations, desegregation monies or contributions by public and private entities.

But while the state and federal money must be spent on English-language acquisition programs, the $239 million does not, meaning it could be spent in other areas. Still, the schools listed that money as being spent on language acquisition in their reports.

“It’s hard to trust the information we have because we have so many discrepancies,” Penny said.

But a deadline is a deadline, and the law mandates the annual report be given to state lawmakers by Jan. 31, so the report went out anyway.

To find out whether bilingual education truly is working, says teacher Ana Maria Quilantan Hawley, go to a classroom, and see for yourself.

Daniel Lopez started first grade this year at Hawley’s Frank Elementary School in Guadalupe speaking only Spanish. Now, the 7-year-old is fluent in Spanish and English.

He reads English at his grade level and is in a Spanish reading group for second-graders. He writes in both languages.

“I learned a lot because I hear the other kids,” Daniel says. “At first, it was hard to know what people were saying. I asked them again and again.”

Hawley has nine Spanish-speaking children in her class; the rest of the 25 students speak English. She teaches in both languages.

“Children cannot learn if they cannot understand what the teacher is saying,” says Carlos Bejarano, Frank’s principal. “But you can’t just speak Spanish all day and never teach them English. You have to do both.”

In early January, a group called English for the Children of Arizona launched a signature campaign to place a ban on bilingual education on the November 2000 general-election ballot. If the effort is successful, English-deficient students would be taught in English only.

In the House, a bill sponsored by Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, would cut off funding for bilingual programs after three years.

And in the Senate, a bill sponsored by Lopez would increase bilingual funding and require districts to hire only credentialed bilingual teachers.

Norma Alvarez, a member of English for the Children, says children are kept in bilingual education classes for too long and often simply because of their surname – Alvarez, Hernandez, Lopez.

“We want our kids to speak English,” says Alvarez, who is bilingual and whose grown children, ages 34 and 27, also are. “Kids learn real easy. Their little brains are like sponges.”

In Glendale, students who speak Spanish are sequestered in classrooms with other Spanish-speaking students. However, children from Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia and other countries learn along with the English-speaking children.

“Spanish-speaking students are not given the same chance,” Alvarez says. “These are expensive programs, and they are not working. Kids are not learning.”

Last year, the Education Department reported that only 2.8 percent of Limited English Proficient students in 1996-97 had learned enough English to be placed in regular classrooms.

Arizona’s rate is lower than that in California (just under 7 percent), where voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative in June that virtually eliminates bilingual education there.

On Hawley’s classroom walls, signs say, “Reach for the stars, Alcanzen las estrellas” and “Work quietly, Trabajar quietos.” Even the bathroom passes say, “Girls, Ninas” and “Boys, Ninos.”

Hawley has been at Frank, teaching both Spanish- and English-speaking students, for 20 years. She gives directions in Spanish and English. Her charges speak in both languages.

This way, Alvarez says, her Spanish speakers keep up with their English-speaking classmates in reading, math, social studies, among other subjects, while learning to read, speak and write English.

“They can learn so much more from the other children,” she says. And they constantly hear and see English.

As Daniel reads, he points to each word with his pencil. He is flawless. His parents are from Mexico and speak Spanish. He is painstakingly neat, stacking his books and papers.

“It is good to know how to speak two languages,” Daniel says.

And Hawley’s setup has advantages for the English-speaking students, as well.

Daniel’s classmate, Marquis Jones, an African-American boy who knew no English until this year, pronounces words in Spanish perfectly.

“What would that be in English?” Hawley often asks. “What would that be in Spanish?”

When she taught third grade, Hawley taught all students – whether they spoke primarily English or Spanish – to speak Japanese and to communicate in sign language.

Hawley herself went to grade school in Texas and did not speak English until fourth grade.

“I never knew what was going on,” she remembers.

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