In a new and disputed program called bilingual education, public schools are planning to teach more than 200,000 children this fall in languages other than English.
Most of the instruction is to be in Spanish, for the benefit of large Puerto Rican, Cuban and Mexican elements in the population. But 41 other languages, including American Indian and Eskimo, are to be used as well.
Crash surveys are under way to see if an estimated 56,000 Vietnamese refugee youngsters now in this country can be worked into the program.
Educators say that bilingual-bicultural education, if fully developed, could help an estimated 2.5 million American schoolchildren now struggling with language difficulties.
Opposed as “un-American.” In many areas the program is meeting resistance of parents and teachers who claim it is creating expensive dual-school systems and tending to polarize children of different nationalities. Some opponents feel that teaching in languages other than English is “un-American.”
The program is being encouraged by federal and State governments and has won the support of courts – on the ground that children do not receive a meaningful education when taught in a language they do not understand.
It was in 1967 that Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act. The law was affirmed by the Supreme Court last year when it rules that failure of the San Francisco school district to provide comprehensible instruction for its non-English-speaking Chinese students was a violation of their civil rights.
Today, federal appropriations for bilingual education add up to 450 million dollars, divided among the Office of Education and 18 other agencies.
In these programs, foreign-speaking students are taught subject matter first in their native tongue, while they learn English as a second language.
Subjects are taught totally in English only when the child is no longer handicapped by inability to communicate fully in the language. The programs stress incorporation of the minority child’s cultural traditions in the curriculum.
Approved, with conditions. Bilingual education has been endorsed by the traditionalist Council for Basic Education – but only “if the objective of fluency and a return to full-time English is clearly kept in mind, if the numbers of children in a given foreign-language group make it practical, and if competent teachers can be obtained.”
The council opposed the “misguided” practice of including English-speaking students in the programs so they can learn a second language. It said this tends to “downgrade the primacy of English in our society.”
Inclusion of English-speaking children is also a concern of parents like Mrs. Mary Orwick of Florida’s Dade County, who said she resented her two children having to take Spanish instruction daily. Her view: “If every culture came to America and demanded to be taught their own culture, we’d be nowhere. Why not learn American first?”
Advocates of bilingual education argue that the program already has proved it can reduce significantly as “appalling” dropout rate among Spanish-speaking students in many places. Bilingualists also claim their classes, rather than polarizing students, lead to a better understanding among nationalities. And they argue that the programs are the best prevention in the long run against foreign-speaking ghettos in the United States.
Many people, watching the growth of bilingual education, wonder what became of the old-fashioned “melting pot” approach to the problems of immigrant children.They get a variety of answers from Americans of foreign origin.
“We didn’t melt,” said Mrs. Victoria Bergin, who came to the U.S. as a child, lived in a Mexican-American community and now directs a bilingual program in Houston.
“To school with fear.” A young Mexican-American teacher in a Michigan program, recalling childhood experiences in Texas, said:
“The child who’s forced to learn English all at once has a terrible adjustment. I faced humiliation. I went to school with fear – fear of being spanked for speaking Spanish, fear of having to pay a dime for every Spanish word I spoke.”
Robert Rangel, director of bilingual programs in Los Angeles city schools, described America today as a “salad bowl” rather than a melting pot.
“Ethnic pride is very strong,” he said. “Today everyone needs to find a place in the sun. Our country is strong because of the diversity it has.”
Two major problems face bilingual education in the year ahead – a shortage of multilingual teachers and, as usual, a shortage of money. Costs are ranging $350 to $400 higher per student than in ordinary classrooms. For Spanish-speaking children alone, it is estimated that up to $77,000 teachers are needed.
A nationwide look at bilingual teaching by staff members of U.S. News & World Report found both growth and criticism.
The San Francisco school board has approved a plan calling in effect for a separate school system for Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Spanish-surnamed students who speak little or no English. Critics contend that what is developing is a new educational bureaucracy based on ethnic identity.
In Los Angeles, about 10,000 children are being taught bilingually, with 80 percent of the instruction concentrated in kindergarten and the first four grades.
Much of the pioneer work in bilingual education was done in Dade County (Miami), Fla., where almost one third of the school population claim Spanish as their original language. Most are the children of refugees from Castro’s Cuba.
Bilingual programs there now have an enrollment of more than 104,000, employing 237 teachers and 435 aides. The 5-million-dollar budget is three times larger than it was two years ago.
But bilingualism has become an explosive issue in Dade County. Linton J. Tyler won election to the school board last year with a pledge to halt expansion of two-language education.
Bilingual programs are getting a better reception in Illinois and Michigan. Both States have passed laws requiring bilingual training in public schools with 20 or more children who have English-language deficiencies.
Illinois is spending 8 million dollars on bilingual education this year and is budgeting 12 million for next year. Chicago has programs in 83 schools, mainly for the city’s large Spanish-speaking population. Michigan has seven bilingual programs, all English-Spanish.
In Houston, Felipa Aguilar, a bilingual teacher, tells this personal story:
At one point in her life, Miss Aguilar believed she was retarded. She grew up in a poor district of San Antonio, one of 16 children. At the age of 12, she dropped out of school to help her father in his business. She finally graduated from high school at the age of 25.
“I still could not speak English,” Miss Aguilar recalled. “I always felt insecure. It was pure hell.” It wasn’t until she was in college, pursuing her ambition to become a nurse, that she finally mastered English. Now she tells young Mexican Americans: “If you want to get ahead, you have to learn English and learn it well. The world won’t wait for you.”
There are 6,257 students in Houston’s bilingual classes this year.
New York City has a voluntary bilingual program in which 22,398 students are enrolled. The language breakdown is 13,848 Spanish-speaking students, 767 Italian, 427 French, 339 Yiddish, 203 Chinese and 200 Greek – plus 6,614 English-speaking students who enrolled to learn a second language.
Puerto Ricans win. The New York program, now voluntary, will become mandatory in September for all Hispanic children unable to participate effectively in classes taught in English. This conforms to a federal court consent decree won by Puerto Rican groups.
Some Hispanic parents and some educators would like to see the consent decree modified. Said Howard L. Hurwitz, principal of Long Island City High School: “I feel that students who study major subjects in their own native language with native-speaking teachers are going to become dependent on the foreign language and not learn English.”
Despite such criticisms, nearly 300 classroom demonstration projects, federally financed, are planned for the next school year to discover the best ways to help foreign-speaking students. Also planned is inservice training of about 9,000 teachers and paraprofessionals as more and more children of foreign-speaking parents get a helping hand so they can compete with other youngsters in U.S. public schools.