Miguel marched into the Orange County school administration building last month ready to do battle.
“When we fought in Vietnam, no one cared whether I spoke English good enough or not,” he yelled at the clerks. “But now, Boone High School is making life miserable for my girl because we’re from Puerto Rico, and she has problems with English. I’ve had it. I want her out of that school and sent to a place that can help her learn English without making her feel like trash.”
The problem of assimilating students who don’t speak English into the schools isn’t a new one.
But for Central Florida, the problem has a twist, because most Spanish-speaking students here aren’t immigrants at all. They’re Puerto Ricans, and therefore American citizens who can travel freely from their island, a U.S. territory, to the states. That presents special problems for those children whose families move back and forth from the island.
True, Orange County has more special programs to help children from foreign countries than any other Central Florida school district. With children representing 79 countries with 43 different languages enrolled in Orange public schools, the district can do no less.
Yet the schools are still failing the biggest group of foreign students – the Spanish speakers. About 85 percent of those children in special English classes in Orange County speak Spanish.
The irony is that the Spanish-speaking children who need the most help with bilingual education – the high school students – are the ones expected to learn math, science and all the other courses solely in English. Only their English class is taught by a bilingual teacher. That’s the way it works in Seminole, Osceola and other Central Florida counties.
By contrast, children in Orange elementary schools get a full day of bilingual classes taught by a teacher who speaks Spanish. Once the children are proficient in English, they’re sent to regular classes.
Having grown up speaking Spanish at home, at a time when there was no bilingual education, I know that learning English when you’re 10 or younger can be a snap. But it’s not that easy for older children. For them, it can take three years or more.
Yet until recently, it seemed like the school systems in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties were expecting these children to learn by osmosis – as if learning English was some cell experiment where a biological mass, the Spanish-speaking human, was expected to absorb English by simply hearing it.
That denies the obvious: It’s human nature for people to gravitate to their own kind. So osmosis can’t work unless there’s only one Spanish-speaking student in a school. Orange County has more than 11,000 Hispanic students, mostly at schools in east Orange. About 2,000 of them – 1,200 in middle schools and high schools – need to learn English. It’s natural for those students to make friends first with other children who speak Spanish.
It took the threat of a lawsuit to change the way Central Florida schools teach English to foreign students. Only after the League of United Latin American Citizens prepared to bring action against the state did the Florida Department of Education move to get rid of the silly osmosis theory last year.
So for next year, all school systems in Florida must have bilingual teachers helping students if there are 15 or more such students who speak the same language. That means Orange County might have to hire more teachers who speak French-Creole to help Haitian children, or Asian teachers fluent in Korean or Vietnamese. Those three groups also are growing.
But this “progress” may come too late for Miguel’s daughter and other high school students who can’t speak English well enough and are on the verge of dropping out. They are victims of a system that stubbornly counted on osmosis – instead of understanding – to teach them English.