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Immigrant parents join campaign against bilingual education

Some fear their children will face a dead end without English fluency

From: Newark Sunday Star-Ledger, November 16, 1997

By Beth Frerking, Newhouse News Serice

Richard Tapia, once a child of a Los Angeles barrio, now a highly acclaimed mathematics professor at Rice University in Houston, was 6 years old when his mother issued an ultimatum to her five children: they would speak English at home.

Her edict strained family relations, because some relatives read in it a rejection of their Mexican heritage. But as the children grew up, with four earning graduate degrees from the likes of University of California, Los Angeles- and Stanford and Yale universities, Richard Tapia came to appreciate her decision.

He understood her logic when, in college, he came up against precocious graduates of Los Angeles' most elite private schools. "I had to compete at the same level, and I needed to be armed with the same tools. The bottom line is this: I can't go into battle unprepared." Today, Tapia worries that bilingual education has left millions of minority students defenseless. And he is not alone. Nationwide, bilingual education is under attack from California to New York, led in part by political opponents who consider it both ineffective and a corrosive, socially balkanizing agent.

But, more significantly, many irnmigrant parents have joined the assault on bilingual education. Eighty-four percent of Latino voters in California support a proposed ballot initiative that would essentially dismantle bilingual education in the public schools there, a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed. That's even higher than the overall level of support, at 80 percent.

Of 52 million public school students nationwide, more than 3 million, or 7 percent, receive some bilingual instruction, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In states with large immigrant populations such as California, Texas, New York and New Jersey, the issue is especially fraught for it carries not only educational concerns but the twin burdens of social and racial justice for populations whose needs were virtually ignored 30 years ago.

Yet, for many immigrant parents today, the issue has lost its political and social resonance. Their concerns are practical: They fear that their children face bleak economic futures if they are not fluent in English.

And they worry that their reason for immigrating here - to make better lives for their children - will have been thwarted, perversely, by the very programs designed to aid them. "My daughter will have more opportunity to get a good job" if she is fluent in English, said Milagros Hilario, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

She fought successfully to have her 10-year-old daughter, Kioveny, removed from bilingual classes after watching her fall behind in both languages. Kioveny understood spoken English but wasn't being taught to read or write it. She could copy work in Spanish off the board but understood little. When Kioveny had homework in Spanish, Hilario recalled, "she cried a lot."

"If she don't speak English, she can't get a job. I don't want her to work in a factoria," said Hilario, who moved to Brooklyn's struggling but lively Bushwick neighborhood 21 years ago from the Dominican Republic.

Hilario is one of several immigrant mothers in Bushwick who have gone countless rounds with New York City school administrators trying to place their children in English-only classes.

Once intimidated by arguments that their children would feel more at home in bilingual classes, and that they might lose their heritage in regular classes, these women have since given voice, loudly and persuasively, to what they know from experience: Unless they are Fluent in English, their children will never attend college or land any but the most menial of jobs.

They resent educators patronizing insistence that their children ought to be fluent in Spanish in case the families want to go back to their home countries - a ludicrous suggestion to most. And they say their children get plenty of Spanish language, culture and heritage where they ought to get it, at home.

“I speak Spanish at home, so they won t forget, but they answer me in English," said Ana Espinosa, 35, a Puerto Rican native and mother of eight.

Such sentiments have fueled opposition to bilingual education in a number of states.

Several years ago, a group of Latino parents in Hilario's neighborhood sued the New York City public schools over bilingual education. They argued that administrators had too much leeway to keep students in bilingual classes well past the standard three years. Although they lost on a narrow legal issue, they continue to challenge the school system on an individual basis.

In Denver, educators are resisting federal rules that govern bilingual instruction. They want to put all children into English-only instruction within three years, and they want control over who is placed in bilingual classes in the first place.

But the most significant activity by far is in California where opponents of bilingual education have gathered enough signatures to force the issue to a vote next June. Should the initiative pass, classroom instruction would occur in English, with non-English-speaking students taking one-year transitional classes in their native languages.

Bilingual education advocates predict that once more is known about the initiative, overall support will dwindle. Most students cannot learn English in just one year, they say, and once parents understand that it could put their children at risk, they'd switch sides.

"There's not a credible shred of evidence that this is something that can normally be accomplished in a year," said Jim Lyons, director of the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington, D.C.

Lyons detects anti-immigrant sentiment in the initiative, a sort of electoral way-back machine that would plop California schools squarely back to 1967, before the state required bilingual education.

"The parents who don't know English today are the products of an English-only system in the past. You don't improve anything by mandating English only," he said.

Three decades ago, children who grew up speaking a foreign language were thrown into “sink-or-swim" classes. They received no instruction in their native languages and were expected to catch up. Many did. But others sank, never able to close the educational gap between them and their English-speaking classmates.

Bilingual education thus was born to rectify what had been a brusque disregard for non-English-speaking students, said Silvia Argueta, an attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund regional headquarters in Los Angeles.

Ideally, bilingual students were to learn core subjects such as math, history and civics in their native languages while gradually learning English. So called "early-exit" programs saw students graduate into English-only classes within three years; students in "late-exit" bilingual programs took as long as seven, she said.

But the ideal and the reality have proven far apart. In some strapped urban school districts, there aren't enough bilingual teachers available for the many and varied foreign speakers. Many students are immediately put into regular classes anyway, pulled out of class for English maybe once a day or a little as twice a week.

Others, typically Spanish-speaking students end up in so-called "transitional bilingual classes," where they are supposed to begin in Spanish and gradually move into mostly English instruction. But critics charge that they remain in monolingual classes, speaking Spanish almost exclusively at school and at home.

"Done absolutely right in the perfect way, it may work. But that's like a nonsequitur when you're talking about what we have in Los Angeles," said Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and director of Las Familias del Pueblo community center in south central Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, what few seem able to answer is whether bilingual programs work. Do children who receive true bilingual instruction learn English any faster than those who are put directly into English-only classes?

Much of the research is biased, depending on the advocacy group that sponsored it. But the limited number of well-controlled scientific studies that do exist found bilingual instruction to be somewhat, but not remarkably, helpful, said Kenji Hakuta, who chaired a National Research Council committee to review existing research on bilingual education.

"All things being equal, use of the native language in education is a positive, but a slight positive," said Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University. "They pretty much learn it at the same pace. It's partly because we underestimate the amount of exposure kids get to English" from television, older brothers and sisters, and even friends on the playground.

Hakuta dislikes that the debate has become so polarized, with its focus almost exclusively on the language of instruction.

"It's the issue that just won't die," he said. "The message for people worried about English is, don't worry, kids learn English, and they learn it regardless of the type of educational exposure. But what we need to worry about is the acquisition of content."

Richard Tapia does worry about content. A member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, he regularly works to attract minority students into the sciences and mathematics. Ultimately, however, it circles back to language instruction, he said.

Although he does not object to smoothing the transition for a brief period, Tapia believes many bilingual programs have hindered these children from participating academically and socially to their potential. Allowed to continue for too long in their native languages, those students will remain forever behind their native English-speaking counterparts, he said...

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