“We do not want our children to look back on our traditions and reject them, to throw away hundreds of years of culture,” Duong Dihn Khue, an eminent Vietnamese historian told the Arlington County School Board last week.
Khue, an Arlington resident, addressed the board in his native language. His speech was translated by community leader Nguyen Ngoc Bich as the five-member board listened attentively.
Bich stood respectfully off to the side of the podium during brief speeches by several Vietnamese parents, his head bowed and his expression intent. Periodically he would dart to the podium to translate for one of the speakers.
Khue was one of several parents of various nationalities who urged the board to create a bilingual education program next year for Arlington’s Vietnamese school children. School officials say that there are 306 Vietnamese students with limited English capacity enrolled in Arlington schools this year.
Because of the recent influx of residents from other countries, school officials estimate that 15 per cent of the county’s school population speak languges other than or in addition to English. Until this year, Vietnamese students were the third largest ethnic group, preceded by Spanish-speaking and Korean students. They are now the second largest group.
Vietnamese parents said they are concerned because School Superintendent Larry Cuban’s proposed budget for next year includes bilingual programs in Spanish and Korean but none in Vietnamese. Arlington currently has small bilingual programs in Korean and Spanish for both foreign and American-born children.
However, the majority of Arlington’s non-English speaking students participate in a program called English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Under the ESOL program many Vietnamese students receive bilingual help but do not learn academic subjects in two languages.
Some Vietnamese parents said a bilingual program is important to bridge the chasm between the American and Vietnamese cultures. “There is really nothing so sad as a rootless person,” one parent told the board.
School officials say that since they expect a Vietnamese bilingual program to be funded through a federal grant, the item was not included in the budget.
That explanation, which had been offered privately several days before the meeting to Vietnamese parents, did not satisfy them and a group of 15 Vietnamese showed up at last week’s meeting in a demonstration of concern.
“It is very flattering to believe that the Vietnamese children are doing well in school, but many still need quite a bit of help,” said Nguyen Huu Phu. Phu also noted that Arlington’s Vietnamese population will continue to swell because of a recent Congressional decision to allow several thousand of the most desperate Indochinese refugees – called “boat people” because of the manner of their escape – into the U.S.
Since the fall of Saigon, thousands of refugees have settled in Northern Virginia. County officials say that Arlington currently has the fourth largest population of Indochinese refugees in America.
In addition, Phu noted that some Vietnamese who have settled in surrounding counties and states are moving to Arlington to join established enclaves. This, he said, would further increase the student population.
“As for the contention that Vietnamese parents are indifferent to bilingual education . . . while Vietnamese parents tend to be passive and quiet, there have always been some Vietnamese representatives at meetings,” Phu said.
Associate Supt. Harold Wilson explained after the meeting that there is “an 85 percent chance” that Arlington will get the federal grant. In the unlikely event that the money does not come through, a Vietnamese bilingual program would be established in 1980.
“We (budgeted) it this way because we think we’ll get federal support more easily. It’s a strategy, but you have to feel for (the Vietnamese parents). They see the Spanish and Koreans have programs and are afraid they won’t get anything,” Wilson said.