EL PASO, TEX.—Less than 100 yards from Bowie High School is a chain-link fence with a gaping hole that serves as a “back door” for students on their way to class. Area residents call it the “tortilla curtain,” but it is best-known as the international border between Mexico and the United States.
“Almost all of our students come from Mexico,” said assistant principal Patricia Multhauf, pointing to well-worn paths and fresh tire tracks crisscrossing the route. “This is their first stop. We’re a training factory for the newly arrived as they come in.”
Some of them live in Texas, either legally or illegally, and some live in Mexico and pass through the hole in the fence daily to go to Bowie.
Multhauf is less concerned with proof of citizenship than she is with managing the students who have flooded her school and changed the nature of education along the nation’s border. She is among a growing number of educators who are turning to intensive English language instruction, rather than bilingual education, to help students adjust.
That may seem like an obvious solution, but in the politically charged field of teaching immigrant Hispanic children, using English as the only language of instruction is a controversial departure from current trends.
Most programs for these Hispanic children use Spanish in combination with English until students learn their new language well enough for a regular classroom. Hispanic groups argue that bilingual education enhances education while preserving native culture.
Though El Paso uses the bilingual method in its elementary schools, it has turned to intensive English instruction, sometimes called immersion, for high school students. The High Intensity Language Training program, or HILT, has become a pilot program for Texas because its innovative teaching, state- of-the-art computer programs and highly skilled teachers have proved remarkably effective.
Until 1982 many of El Paso’s immigrant high school students failed or dropped out. Today students in HILT appear on honor rolls, many are members of the National Honor Society and several have graduated at the top of their classes.
Surprisingly, Hispanic groups and parents who normally oppose immersion programs as a threat to cultural identity have been among those loudly praising HILT.
“I think they realize we are attempting to meet the needs of those students where they were not being met in the past,” Multhauf said. “Parents with children in high school want them to learn English above all else. At this age, they’re not going to forget Spanish. They need to survive.”
El Paso schools are accustomed to large numbers of immigrants. The city of 500,000 residents is on the border with Ciudad Juarez, a metropolis of more than 1 million. Immigration officials say the greatest surge of humanity ever seen along the southern border–from Latin America and other parts of the world–is now clamoring to enter the United States through ports such as these.
Last year, 200,000 illegal aliens were apprehended in El Paso, and officials estimate that at least that many slipped by. U.S. Border Patrol officers have chased illegal aliens through the halls of Bowie, and the sound of immigration helicopters whirling above campus is common.
“I don’t think that any of us in education feel it’s our job to find out who the illegals are,” said Judy Meyer, who coordinates the HILT program. “Among my colleagues, the feeling is that these kids are making the effort to come, to work, to learn English, and that’s to be applauded. We’re going to help them all we can.”
The program is split into two parts, one for students who have had some schooling, the other for those who have had little or none. When they first arrive, students take four intensive English courses during each of their first two semesters, then one in each of the remaining two.
“By the time our students go through the program, they’re doing as well as our regular students,” Multhauf said. “And we’re doing it in only four semesters.”
An innovative aspect is that students take English courses for specific subjects, such as English for science or English for math. Teachers say this helps prepare students for regular classrooms without the need to teach in Spanish.
Another innovation is a teaching technique called Total Physical Response. Students learn “survival” skills in a natural approach to acquiring a language. Classrooms are lively.
Students act out situations such as going to the bank and cashing a check. They have telephone conversations and mock shopping sprees, all designed to teach the practical aspects of English.
“It’s a completely different approach from the old style of language learning,” said teacher Glenda Bowen. “It’s language experience. Students must know what they’re doing before they can talk about it.”
The students do not compete with English-speaking students, so the program bears little resemblance to the old “sink or swim” method of immersion instruction. Under that method, immigrant students were tossed into regular classrooms and left largely to their own resources.
A “think-write” computer program serves as a kind of teacher’s aide. Students “free write” on computer terminals about whatever comes to mind, concentrating less on proper grammar and more on language manipulation.
“The computer gives them confidence. Uninhibited students write more and learn the language faster,” said teacher Alicia Mier. “They’re not afraid to try something new.”
During the course of a think-write semester, student reading scores improve an average of two years, Mier said.
Most of the teachers in HILT are language learning experts with advanced degrees. They undergo a rigorous certification process and know how to teach English as a second language.
They have had success with average and above-average students as well as with those who have never sat in a classroom before.
Blanca Chavez, 17, was born with a hearing problem. Her mother, thinking she was mentally retarded and deaf, never enrolled Blanca in school. When her mother died last year, Blanca moved in with an aunt living in El Paso who took her to see a hearing specialist.
Equipped with a hearing aid and placed in the HILT program, Blanca is learning to read for the first time. Though she still stutters from lack of practice, she grins with confidence when a visitor asks about her favorite pastime.
“I like to read,” Blanca said. “My teacher helped me a lot. I want to be a teacher, too.”
Students who have successfully completed HILT praise the program and its teachers and say they have been inspired to continue their learning.
“Everyone is afraid and confused when they first come, but the teachers gave us a lot of help,” said Sylvia Carrenco, 16, who was born in Ciudad Juarez but moved to El Paso with her family four years ago. “Not only did they teach us how to speak English, but how to behave and how to make a new life.”
The young immigrants. Chicago-area schools are struggling to teach non- English-speaking children from all over the world. This report, part of a series of occasional stories, explores how a Texas school meets a similar challenge.