Bilingual Speaking

Programs need revamping, but politics cannot be bypassed

Some realities cannot be ignored.

The rapidly changing ethnic makeup of the Houston area is one of them. The need for a better educated work force is another.

The incredibly high (greater than 50 percent) school dropout rate among Hispanic students is yet a third. The role the failure of bilingual education programs plays in that dropout statistic is still another.

It is therefore commendable that trustees of the Houston Independent School District are seeking to strengthen and clarify the policy under which the district’s bilingual programs are administered. The main goal is – as it properly should be – to help students make the important transition to English while bolstering their academic achievement.

That’s easier said than done, of course, but a proposal to begin addressing the issue is scheduled for consideration on Thursday, and school board proponents of the measure think they have enough votes to pass it.

An early version of the document was to be voted upon last month but was met with objections and suspicion in the community. Some Hispanic leaders and organizations, for example, worried that the language in the policy statement closely followed language in literature of the “English only” movement.

At that time, we counseled proponents of the policy reform to be more collaborative and listen more carefully to the objections coming from the community.

They apparently took that advice to heart and, again commendably, have been reaching out and taking recommendations to change and strengthen the document. (In fact, changes were still being made as late as Tuesday afternoon.)

HISD Superintendent Rod Paige says he supports the proposed policy changes, which his administration would be responsible for implementing. “I think the board is being very mature and courageous,” he said. And the reform, he feels, “puts us in good stead” for “doing what’s right for the children.”

Proponents say they feel they have arrived at a good document despite any possible flaws in the process and that the naysayers will always find reason to oppose change and protect the status quo. They also say they are elected trustees who have the responsibility to do what they think is right and not necessarily build a political consensus before that happens.

All of the above is true and fair enough.

However, there are a couple of other unfortunate realities that, for equally good reasons, cannot be ignored.

One is the political nature of this complex and controversial issue, and the other is the fact that the process by which this policy was arrived at got off to a terrible start and has not overcome the level of mistrust that trustees must dispel before proceeding.

Only the naive would suggest that there won’t be political criticism of almost any move and any method the school district uses to change anything. At some point action has to take precedence over endless study and debate. But the political confrontation and consternation this effort has engendered argues for at least a better effort to build consensus than has been put forth to date.

And the flawed process cannot be dismissed so easily, we fear. Putting a more inclusive collaboration at the front end of the process would have been far better. Finding some way to do that now may or may not require starting over from scratch, but it certainly seems unwise to ram a document, which still engenders suspicion and is still something of a moving target, down the throats of an important segment of the community.

We’d like to see trustees go back to their biggest critics with a clean slate and address their concerns more directly from the outset.

In turn, we’d like to see those critics come to the table and offer constructive suggestions for ways to move the reform forward – as fairly and rapidly as possible.

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