Squandering Kids On Bilingual Ed

Rosana Ramos speaks English at home, and so do her kids. But when she sent her twins to kindergarten a few years ago, someone in the school system decided that only one could speak English. The other one was sent to a Spanish-language class until Ramos hollered, good and loud.

Now she has another little one starting kindergarten, and Rosana Ramos stood up in Washington Heights the other day and made the following announcement:

No more “bilingual” for my kids.

“I have to pay $ 25 an hour” for a private tutor, says Gregoria Jimenez, because after three years in a bilingual class, her son has come up zero-lingual. He can’t read in any language. Another one of her children is on the way to kindergarten – and it better be in English, says Jimenez.

No more bilingual for Gregoria Jimenez’ children.

Charles Pacheco’s daughter, who also is going to kindergarten in September, is being steered to a Spanish-based class – although the father speaks English with only a New York accent and his child speaks it well, too.

Nope, Pacheco doesn’t want his kid taught in Spanish, either.

Welcome to the land of bilingual – where, at times, the teachers can’t speak English and the kids can’t read in any language, but the grants just keep rolling in from Albany and Washington.

Bilingual education started out three decades ago as a way of making sure children from other countries were able to go to school in the United States and learn. It has sprouted utopian wings, and is now considered – by people in bilingual education, but not many others – the best way to educate children, no matter what language they start out with.

It is also one of the very best ways for a poor urban school district to make money: Each student deemed to have “limited English proficiency” can be ransomed off to the state and federal governments for a piece of the bilingual money pie.

The result, in District 6 of Washington Heights – one of the most crowded school systems in the country – is that the utopians of bilingual land have run head-on into the neighborhood’s immigrant families, who think English is their road to utopia – or at least, a chance at Yankee prosperity.

It has become hard to get a kid into an English-language kindergarten in Washington Heights, since the Spanish ones – funded by a half-dozen state and federal programs – have been given priority by the local education bureaucracy. (In some schools, there are about six bilingual seats for every one in an English-language classroom, although there is an equal or greater demand for English.)

As a result, parents who don’t want their kids taught in Spanish must sit on a waiting list of 600 or 700 for the English-language classrooms. If they demand kindergarten before the turn of the century, they are welcome to send their child to the Bronx on a bus.

The whole process strikes the parents as insane, particularly since kids at age 5 are so fresh and able to pick up any language. Since they get all the Spanish they need at home, why shouldn’t they get English at school?

Last month, more than 250 kids from a Head Start program at the Fort George Community and Enrichment Center went to register for kindergarten at two public schools. The people at the schools gave surprise language tests.

Since the little ones were no more than 5 years old, lots of them refused to say anything. “I taught my kids not to speak with people they don’t know,” said Ramos.

The parents were told that most of the kids would be in bilingual classes. That was a mistake, the district now claims – the real proficiency tests don’t come until September. The district says those tests at registration were just being used to get a forecast of the demand for bilingual.

But by then, once again, there may be no room for parents who want their children educated in English. So at a meeting in Washington Heights last week, parents lined up to say they didn’t trust the bilingual programs.

“When I went to register my son, I passed a classroom and they were speaking only in Spanish,” said Annie Martinez, an administrative assistant in the mechanical engineering department of Columbia University. “Now I have him enrolled at St. Elizabeth’s. The public school had placed him in a bilingual, based on this test. At St. Elizabeth’s, the test is much stiffer, because the kids have to be fluent in English, and she was accepted there. But not in the public school.”

“I’m very proud of being a Latin. I’m also very proud of being an American,” said Charles Pacheco, a former marine. “If your last name is Latin, they automatically use that to make the decision” to send the kids to Spanish-language classes.

“If that’s the way,” said Marin Madera, “then I make my last name Wood – that’s English for Madera. I came from the Dominican Republic, I was 11 years old, I never went to any school. Here I went bilingual all the time. I was afraid to speak English. I don’t want the same thing to happen to my child.”

“We have parents who speak English better than the teachers in the public school,” said Lenore Peay, director of the Head Start program at Fort George. “We are very concerned that the children have an awareness of their heritage. But we want our children to succeed, too.”

After the parents spoke, Alejandro Soto, who works in the city’s bilingual-education office, spoke of the value of heritage and told them he was punished for speaking Spanish in school 30 years ago. He also told them they had been misinformed.

Another bureaucrat stood and told them they had been misinformed. They had rights, they didn’t have to send their kids to bilingual class. Of course, the rules and regulations the officials spoke of are honored by putting 5-year-olds on a bus for an hour’s ride to an English kindergarten.

When the officials were done, a parent stood to respond. He spoke in Spanish.

“You speak very beautifully,” said Cesar Schmucke, a Venezuelan who works in a restaurant. “But you don’t understand. We are in the United States. To enter a profession, my child must have college. In college, my child will need perfect English. The future for my child is in English. We don’t want bilingual.”

He sat down to an ovation that needed no translation.

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