My grandson David was born in New York City. His mother speaks English at home and at her job. And David grew up speaking English with his friends.
In his Head Start program, David eagerly participated in class, followed instructions and learned basic concepts — all in English.
He was excited about attending grade school. But David lived in School District 32 in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Like many children in the district, David, who has a Hispanic surname, was funneled into a bilingual program. The child who had been eager to learn became a child who had trouble following directions, and, most important, who could not learn to read. He did not learn in first grade, in second grade or in third grade.
Teachers, principals and district officials told his mother and me that David was a slow learner. By the time he was in fourth grade, the school suggested that he needed special education as well as bilingual classes.
That was not the real problem. In his Head Start program, David had learned that letters had sounds attached to them. But in his bilingual classroom, teachers assigned new sounds to the same letters. The system confused him. Sometimes he did not even understand his teachers’ instructions because he was used to directions in English.
Then there were the bilingual teachers themselves. I thought they would be qualified to offer instruction in two languages. But after meeting them, I realized that some of the instructors could barely carry on a conversation in English.
His mother and I tried to get him out of bilingual education. But we were repeatedly told that he was too slow; that if he was confused in one language, it would be worse in two, and that the real problem was discipline.
As a leader in the Bushwick Parents Organization, I have years of experience talking with teachers and administrators. Yet, with all this experience, I was still unable to get David out of bilingual education.
By the time David reached middle school the situation was desperate. I encouraged my daughter to move into another district and move David into an English-only class.
David is now in the seventh grade, and finally learning. He still struggles, but at least now he knows how to read and write. Now, he even enjoys going to the library.
It was clear to me that bilingual education robbed David of the opportunity to learn. That’s why I filed an affidavit supporting a lawsuit by the Bushwick Parents Association against the state Commissioner of Education. The law says children should be in bilingual education for three years, but the state routinely granted waivers to that rule. Tens of thousands of immigrant children spent six years in bilingual classes. The suit was dismissed last month, but that is not going to make bilingual education any more effective.
Yes, I am proud of my Hispanic heritage, and I want my children and grandchildren to speak Spanish. But if bilingual classes leave a child illiterate in two languages, something is wrong. Statistics and studies are routinely quoted to shore up claims that children learn better in their native language. That may be true for some children in bilingual programs, but that was not my experience. David and other Hispanic children are victims of a badly administered system more concerned with self-perpetuation than with students.
Ada Jimenez lives in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. This article was written with assistance from Kathy Maire of East Brooklyn Congregations.