Bilingual Education Translates Into A Real Plus For Everyone

Veronica Garcia has to make a decision soon. Should she go to Emory University in Atlanta or the University of Florida?

The 23-year-old University of Central Florida graduate applied and has been accepted to attend medical school at Emory University, UF and more. Not bad for a kid with dirt-poor roots, the product of her farmworker-parents’ labor of love.

“I couldn’t have gotten where I am without the bilingual-education program,” Garcia told me recently. She began the bilingual program in second grade at Apopka Elementary School. Her Mexican parents had just moved to the area. By fifth grade Garcia was totally fluent in English and a great academic performer.

“A child needs to learn certain material by a certain age,” she said. “If I had not had the help of the bilingual program, I would have fallen behind in science and math and social studies.”

Blecks St. Hubert also praises the bilingual program that helped him succeed in school. He recently was elected a student-government senator at Valencia Community College, the first Haitian student to win such a prestigious seat.

Garcia and St. Hubert went before the Orange County School Board earlier this month to get a commitment from the superintendent and school-board members that they won’t dismantle bilingual-education programs. The board’s chambers were packed with people whose children are being taught English as a second language.

Sister Ann Kendrick and Sister Cathy Gorman, two Catholic nuns who run the Office for Farmworker Ministry in Apopka, wanted the board to see how much those parents care about their kids getting ahead in school.

For months there had been rumors that Superintendent Dennis Smith was being pressured by some school principals and administrators to give up on bilingual programs. Back in February, Smith told me that he supports bilingual education, so long as there are clear goals and timetables to ensure that children are learning English.

He figured that the rumors took off because he used to be in the school system in California, where a voter referendum may do away with bilingual education.

California’s bilingual programs are a mixed bag. Some work well for kids, many of whom move back and forth between Mexico and California. But lots of those programs are so focused on keeping kids fluent in Spanish that the children aren’t progressing in English.

That’s not the type of program that helps children succeed in this country, and Sisters Ann and Cathy made that clear to the board, too.

Nonetheless, the sisters were worried. There had been a proposed name change for the bilingual program, which Sister Ann said could signal “subtle shifts in value or direction” of the program.

Orange County School Board member Linda Sutherland promised that the school system here is committed to expanding bilingual education – not gutting it. “I’m such a strong believer that all children should be bilingual, which is why we’re seeding the idea of having more elementary schools involved in second-language acquisition for English-speaking students.”

Sutherland is right on the mark. We know from child-development research that young children can learn many languages simultaneously and that it helps children better understand other disciplines, such as math and science.

This is a wonderful nation. A strong nation. There’s no reason American children of every background can’t be learning more than one language. It can only help keep America strong. Ask Veronica Garcia.

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