Santa Ana cheats its Hispanic students

The issue of bilingual education is important to our communities, especially in Santa Ana, where each election year most prospective school board candidates write in their ballot statements that they want the children educated in English “as soon as possible.”

People would be shocked to know how we educate our Hispanic children. I was. Most people think bilingual education means that children are taught in English and given help or translations in Spanish. This method, in fact, is called immersion and is used for most language groups other than Spanish-speaking students. The stated policy at Santa Ana actually is to instruct Hispanic students first in their primary language (Spanish) and then begin to make the transition to English at about third grade. So they are taught reading, writing, mathematics, history, and science in Spanish for the first three or four years. Many parents do not understand that their children will be learning and reading in Spanish.

In the lower grades, the children are given 20 minutes of English instruction, but often have nowhere to practice English words when, throughout their day, they are instructed in Spanish and often segregated with Spanish speakers. In some schools, teachers are reprimanded if they encourage the children to learn or speak in English, as it counters the bilingual philosophy of having the children first learn in their primary language.

A study made in the district in 1987 showed that only 16 percent of the children who were in the Spanish reading-bilingual education program had successfully transferred to English classes by the time they entered junior high. The study also concluded that if they did not transfer to English classes by junior high, the other 84 percent would likely continue to do “significantly below grade level” until they graduated from high school. Is it any wonder that Hispanic children are always ranked lowest when it comes to entering college and SAT scores?

Did these grim statistics raise eyebrows? No, the study said in its conclusion that although it was disappointing that the children were not making the transition as quickly as hoped, the program was nonetheless successful because the children were meeting their “planned outcomes.”

Planned outcomes! Could it be that our educational system is planning for our Hispanic students to. fail? This is a crime against children.

This system of spending three or four years of precious learning time on Spanish is handicapping our children and discouraging our Hispanic teenagers. It is crucial that children enter those critical junior high years with some measure of success. When they enter junior high with often a third-grade level of English reading, they have to struggle to catch up. The teachers have to pump English vocabulary into their students to prepare them for high school classes. Our dedicated teachers have to work too hard remediating students instead of teaching them. The Students have to struggle, accept underachievement. or drop out, as many do, under the weight of failure. And our community is well aware of the world of gangs, drugs, and crime that awaits these discouraged young people who turn their backs on school to find a place of acceptance among their homeboys.

How dearly the community pays. Beyond the emotional and physical consequences for the children, the taxpayer is then asked to spend even greater amounts for drop-out prevention programs, stay-inschool promotions, and self-esteem rallies.

We do not have to keep doing what is clearly not working. The Little Hoover Commission, during its bilingual hearings, was amazed to learn how few studies and assessments had been done on bilingual education. The State Department of Education could not tell them how much is spent annually on bilingual education. After more than 16 years and billions of dollars spent nationally, is there no accountability?

Well, yes, the bilingual education movement has come to some conclusions after all these years and money spent. Most observers now agree that teaching children in Spanish for the first three or four years is not working because the children are not turning out proficient in either Spanish or English. So what is their solution? New studies conclude that Spanish-speaking children need to be kept longer in Spanish – all the way through junior high. Such “late exit” programs are the current rage in bilingual circles. This recommendation was also suggested at the end of our six-month Bilingual Education Task Force study.

It seems as if the district has to decide if we are going to spend our efforts and educational dollars on teaching children the English language and the American culture or continue to spend our scarce resources teaching teachers and students Spanish and the Latin culture?

We need to get some things straight. English is important. Having two languages is desirable. Success in the workforce and further academic studies demands English. And yes, being truly bilingual can give our children an edge in the competitive global marketplace.

Fortunately, I don’t think it has to be an either/or proposition. We can do both. The expanding competitive world demands it.

If we teach our children in English from day one, “as soon as possible,” with needed translation and other help, of course, and give each of our children Spanish or another language instruction starting at 20 minutes each day in kindergarten, half an hour in the upper grades, and working up to an hour in high school, we will have truly bilingual students.

Santa Ana, with its wonderful cultural diversity, can provide a unique language laboratory for our children. Soon parents would flock to our district to give their children the advantages of truly learning two languages while keeping up with a rigorous academic education.

It is time to respect the voters who want their children in English classes as soon as possible. It is time to listen to the parents who know English is key to their child’s success.

Mrs. Avila is a member of the Board of Education of the Santa Ana Unified School District. This column is adapted from remarks she delivered publicly at a February school board meeting.

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