The state has once again confirmed what many Orange County parents whose children are learning English as a second language already knew: The mish-mash of programs are understaffed, often by unqualified teachers and assistants who have little training, if any.
The predictable result: failing kids. In the latest monitoring of schools, the state Department of Education found many of the same problems that a 1999 audit uncovered, as well as the initial findings of a second audit in February. That investigation was prompted by complaints from the Parent Leadership Council, which represents the families of kids who aren’t yet fluent in English.
Many of the district’s schools aren’t in compliance with a decade-old, out-of-court settlement that requires all schools in Florida to offer “comprehensible instruction” in all subjects to students who are learning English. Worse, educators still don’t know which of the half dozen programs in use is most successful.
Bilingual education remains the rare exception. District officials say they simply don’t have the money to put such programs into place in all middle schools and high schools, though they are starting to look for federal money that’s available. That’s long overdue.
Many schools aren’t even following the non-bilingual strategies the state and district developed over the years to help students learn English. And many schools, the audit found, are ignoring the state requirement that, at the very least, a bilingual assistant be assigned whenever 15 or more students in a class speak the same foreign language.
So what’s really happening to those students, particularly the ones in middle and high schools who have to study high-level material in science, math and other subjects without any translation help?
They’re being left behind — trying to grasp complicated scientific theories and mathematical equations in a language vacuum. No surprise that the graduation rate for students learning English is only 29 percent.
In essence, many kids who are failing are being taught by teachers who are not trained to help students master English. Mastering English — not just speaking it, but being able to read and write it at grade level in all subjects — certainly should be the goal.
More than 18,000 students in Orange County need to master English. The majority are fluent in Spanish, but two other groups — Haitians and Brazilians — also are growing in certain schools to the point that they should get bilingual assistants, as required. Their parents aren’t fluent in English, though many are taking classes at night or are learning conversational English on the job. Language acquisition takes time, and in today’s competitive, high-tech environment, time is of the essence.
One hundred years ago, when few people graduated high school and factories provided plenty of jobs, the nation’s education system could pretend to be teaching through immersion. After all, anyone can learn to speak a language in a year. But master it? No way!
Yet the state requires that those students who have two years of English instruction must take and pass the FCAT. It’s a testament to their hard work and smarts that any do, considering that so many native-English speakers flunk.
To Superintendent Ron Blocker’s credit, he has put more focus on students who are learning English than he did his first year on the job. In February, he tapped Deborah Manuel, deputy superintendent who oversees instruction and curriculum, to monitor all programs in the five learning communities. She has met extensively with parents, educators, business people and others who have a stake in education.
Manuel says a transitional bilingual program at Union Park Middle School, which serves a heavily Hispanic population, begins this fall. She’s also meeting with area superintendents to go over the state’s audit to make sure the same problems don’t pop up again. The response must be districtwide, she says. Absolutely. And in a few weeks, the district will have a better idea about which programs are working and which need to be overhauled.
“We wanted to really build some trust with parents, and I think that’s what we accomplished this year,” she told me.
Trust is welcome. Now for the hard work of following through with promises made.