WASHINGTON—All around the country over the past two weeks, graduating students have marched into auditoriums to applause. At one school in my neighborhood, the chorus that followed “Pomp and Circumstance” was “Himno a las Americas.” At a time when other cities with sizable Hispanic populations are in turmoil over how to educate their children, Oyster Bilingual Elementary is a public school where parents — whether native speakers of Spanish or of English — camped out for several nights last spring to get their children in.
What schools like Oyster Bilingual do is make the education of Spanish-speaking children a program that also benefits children born to English. Test scores in English for this year’s graduating class were on a par with the region’s best. Of course, the Oyster Bilingual students were, in addition, very good in Spanish. The school does not see being born to Spanish as a disadvantage. It is one step on the road toward knowing two languages.
Over half the Oyster Bilingual graduates, including many Hispanics, spoke English when they entered. All were up to speed in it when they left. It is the non-Hispanic children who took away a skill rare among native-born children (and adults): fluency in more than one language. At the age of 12, my own daughter, who spent six years there, could have made herself understood almost anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, something that cannot be said for her college-educated parents.
Oyster’s bilingual program does not come cheap. Not only do reading and writing in English and Spanish get equal class time, but math, history, geography and beginning science are taught half the time in Spanish and half in English. Two teachers are assigned to each class — one for English, one for Spanish. The costs of that and other features unique to the program are not readily pried from a strapped school board.
Like other schools serving the “limited-English-proficient,” Oyster Bilingual gets support from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed by Congress in the 1960’s. As it happens, at almost the very moment that Oyster was sending its admirably prepared graduates on to the all-English world of Washington’s upper schools, the Senate was voting to extend the act that helps sustain schools like it. Over the next six years, the Senate bill would greatly increase the funding for a variety of programs that benefit children who start school with relatively little English. The House bill is not quite so generous, and the Senate’s largesse will in all likelihood be reined in a bit.
There is a wide range in education strategies for children who reach school age speaking only a foreign language. Some systems allow or require immersion in English, in hopes of jump-starting children toward assimilation into “mainstream” public schools. Some offer “two-way immersion” programs like Oyster’s, in which English- and Spanish-speaking children advance together in both languages. And there are several variations in between.
The merit of the bills currently going forward, with the apparent blessing of the White House, is that they leave the choice to local systems while backing up those choices with money. There are no losers under this arrangement, and under the best programs you don’t have to be Hispanic to win the gift of bilingualism.
Martin Plissner is writing a book about the global reach of polling and market research.