The Bilingual education administrator looked at me from across her desk and said, “If a third-grader is not ready to read ‘Charlotte’s Web’ in English, we won’t let her.”

The administrator was explaining to me, the new school board trustee, how our district’s bilingual education program served more than 8,000 Spanish-speaking students. In our district, she explained, Spanish was a prerequisite to English, which meant that our Spanish-speaking students spent the first three to four years of their education learning to read and write Spanish before learning to read and write English. Students began intensive study of English after and only after they passed a Spanish proficiency exam. This is what the administrator meant when she said we wouldn’t let a third-grader read the English version of “Charlotte’s Web” until the student was ready.

Why did we wait until third or fourth grade to teach English literacy? “Because,” she said, “research shows that a person who is fluent in his or her own language is better equipped to learn a foreign language.”

Her explanation defied common sense. I remember telling her that my daughter and I had just taken snow-boarding lessons and the instructor had told us it was easier to learn snow-boarding if we knew surfing, but she didn’t take us to the ocean and teach us to surf before starting the class.

Language was not snow-boarding, the administrator said. language was a manifestation of culture, and if we were to affirm the student’s culture, we must preserve the student’s native language. Of course we wanted students to learn English, but not so quickly that it would jeopardize their knowledge of Spanish.

The purpose of our district’s bilingual education program, she emphasized, was not the rapid acquisition of English – in fact that was undesirable – the goal of our program was preservation of Spanish with the subsequent mastery of English.

That was two years ago. This year our school district overhauled its 10-year-old bilingual education master plan and announced that henceforth we would no longer require schools to teach Spanish to students who speak no English. Although schools will still be free to teach Spanish to Spanish-speakers (and indeed many have chosen to do so), from now on, all schools must assure that their English learners “rapidly develop English language proficiency.”

For more than a decade, our district had tried to preserve our students’ Spanish at the expense of rapidly teaching them English. As a result we graduated too many students who could not read or write either language. We waited until third or fourth grade to teach English literacy — precisely the time we expected our students to begin mastering math, science and other core subjects. Thus we turned out students who mastered neither language nor curriculum.

Test results confirmed our failure: Too many of our Spanish-speaking students scored in the lowest percentiles on standardized tests. One high school teacher reported that 63 of his 145 basic math students received a grade of “D” or “F” on a final exam that opened with the problem “3+2+7=?”.

A middle-school principal told a story about a mother of a Spanish-speaker who came to her office and quietly but bitterly said, “You have taught my daughter for seven years and she cannot read.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence that our bilingual program was a failure, — reform was still controversial, with many accusing us of racism.

But in the end, the school board ignored critics’ charges of racism and listened to parents who never accused us of trying to send their children back to Mexico, but who did blame us for failing to prepare their sons and daughters for college and career. Their children – our students – weren’t poor immigrants; they were college material, and it was our responsibility to teach them the skills they needed to succeed.

Doug Kaplan is a trustee of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District on the Central California coast.

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