As Karen Day, a gym teacher at Dwight Morrow High School, gave her first-day-of-school speech Thursday, Julia Chand of India sat on the bleachers and stared off into space. Chand, 17, who’s been in the United States for only two months, didn’t understand a word.
At the end of her speech, Day asked another student from India to translate for Chand. The two children smiled at each other, exchanged a few words, but found they spoke different dialects.
“Not the same dialect?” Day asked. “Well, at least we tried.”
For Chand, the first day of school was like trying to run an obstacle course blindfolded. The languague barrier tripped her up on everything from reading her class schedule to understanding her teacher’s instructions.
But for another newly arrived immigrant, Elizabeth Corrales, 17, who moved to Englewood from Colombia last Sunday, the day wasn’t nearly as rough.
Corrales found that her teachers and many other students spoke her native language. She was helped from classroom to classroom by Latino students in the school.
More importantly, she was placed in a bilingual education program where the core curriculum, mathematics, science, and social studies, is taught in both her native language and English. Corrales said that thanks to bilingual education she felt at home at Dwight Morrow.
“This is much better with them teachers speaking Spanish,” Corrales said as she walked through the hall.
To service a growing population of immigrant students, there are approximately 235 school districts in New Jersey that either run bilingual education programs or offer English as a Second Language, ESL, classes. The ESL programs are supplemental classes that concentrate on teaching the language to children who do not speak English.
Sixty districts run bilingual education programs in 10 different languages, including Spanish, Portugese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese, said Jay Doolen of the state Office of Bilingual Education.
But some legislators and educators, including officials in the state Department of Education, want to loosen the mandates for bilingual education programs. They argue that some immigrant groups, such as the Japanese, don’t want their children in special classes. They say it is too expensive for districts to obey the present law, and they point to a shortage of qualified bilingual education teachers.
Currently, a district must provide bilingual education in any school that has 20 or more students who speak the same foreign language and cannot speak English. If a district has a school with 10 to 20 non-English speaking students, it must provide ESL classes.
A bill introduced last year by state Sen. Matthew Feldman, D-Teaneck, would allow districts in New Jersey to drop their bilingual education programs, regardless of the number of children who can’t speak English, and would require the districts to continue teaching English to these students.
“The present system of numbers which trigger bilingual or ESL approaches would be eliminated,” said Feldman.
But advocates of bilingual education say there’s no question that bilingual education works and provides a needed transition for immigrant students.
“A lot of people feel the students should be in English-only classes, and that’s all right, and children are resilient. They’ll survive. But what’s best for the children is another story,” said Elizabeth Willaum, who coordinates Englewood’s bilingual education program. “Math they can do because that’s universal, but anything that’s verbal and involves reading and writing is another story.”
In the Englewood school district, there are 170 students who are labeled as “limited English proficiency” students. About 85 percent of these students are native Spanish speakers, primarily from Colombia.
These children are placed in bilingual education and are usually out of the program in one or two years, says Willaum.
For the population coming from war-torn countries such as El Salvador, where they haven’t had much schooling, the transition may take longer.
This academic year at Dwight Morrow High School, there are 15 students who are brand-new arrivals in the country. They hail from around the world: India, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Jamaica, and Zimbabwe.
But there aren’t enough students speaking any language other than Spanish to trigger the creation of another bilingual education program at the school.
For Chand, her first day in an American school was rough. She struggled in vain to understand questions in class and follow instructions. But being unable to comprehend even simple words in English, the day was difficult.
“I’m going to connect her to an Indian science teacher by next week and pray there is some kind of breakthrough,” said Willaum.
But for Corrales, the language barrier didn’t prove a problem.
“Within five months, you will learn some English,” social studies teacher Maria Satterfield told her class in Spanish. “But we don’t want you to forget your language because it’s yours.”