As Jessica Bartres begins kindergarten at L.O. Donald Elementary School, there should be no question about where her academic focus should lie: She and the rest of Texas’ half-million limited-English students should try to master English as soon as possible.

Hailing from 67 different linguistic backgrounds with about 90 percent of them being Spanish speakers students who aren’t fluent in English comprise well over one-third of the nearly 158,000 students enrolled in the Dallas public schools. Already a challenge to school district administrators and individual teachers, the large-scale presence of non-English-speaking students may soon turn out to be the major challenge facing the Dallas public schools. If current trends continue, says Evangelina Cortez, assistant superintendent for multilingual education, half of the students in the district could be non-English-fluent by 2003.

True, helping Jessica maintain her Spanish also is desirable. But let’s keep the issue in perspective. The reality is that the disadvantage created by unnecessarily delaying English fluency would undermine academic progress and career options for Jessica and about 58,000 other Dallas public school students.

It is a key point to remember as the Dallas public schools try to catch up after falling very far behind in meeting the needs of non-English-speaking students.

Bilingual education does not face the intense opposition in Texas that it does in California. Yet unease over special language instruction does exist because of past excesses in some bilingual programs, and because of the growing enrollment of non-English-fluent students. These students require the help provided for in state law. Both they and the public deserve bilingual education that is better focused and moves most students into English classes as soon as possible.

Enhanced academic performance during the students’ public school career is certainly the main goal. But the issue cannot be considered in an academic or pedagogical vacuum. Eventually, those students will face the challenge of earning a living in the United States, the world’s most successful English-speaking nation.

More to the point, the United States is a country that leads the world with a post-industrial, knowledge-based service economy that prizes communications skills. The requirements for landing well-paying jobs are already higher than they were in the manufacturing era, and they are projected to grow more stringent still.

For students in the Dallas public schools to know two or more languages is naturally desirable. But in a post-industrial economy increasingly based on effective communication, the failure of some students to master English quickly may keep them not just from winning. It may block them from even reaching the starting line.First of six parts.

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