Los Angeles Times
Monday, May 25, 1998
A Boomtown of Bilingual Education
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writer
MIAMI--While California debates whether to stop teaching schoolchildren
in two languages, the school system in this city at the crossroads of the
Americas is expanding bilingual education under the argument that students
will need to speak, read and write in English and Spanish when they reach
the business world.
Here in Miami, there was little protest
and much praise when the school board this year endorsed a plan to increase
bilingual teaching for all students--not just those with limited English
skills--from kindergarten through 12th grade.
The decision was seen as natural for a metropolis
where the top-rated television station broadcasts in Spanish, the top-ranked
newspaper publishes a separate Spanish daily edition, many top civic leaders
speak effortless Spanish and Latinos have become the majority.
Other school districts nationwide have come
to similar conclusions, as "two-way" bilingual programs--which
immerse students in English and another language--have grown in popularity.
There are at least 200 such programs in 20 states, according to the Center
for Applied Linguistics in Washington. They are in cities such as New York,
Chicago, Houston and San Jose.
Their growth appears to be limited only
by demographics (mixing students who speak different languages is ideal),
by the supply of bilingual teachers (often scarce) and by money (always
Donna Christian, the center's director,
said the two-way approach has become popular in part because it avoids
the "stigma," "negative press" and "controversy"
that often follow other forms of bilingual education.
California May Move in Opposite Direction
Nowhere is the controversy more intense
than in California, where a vote on an anti-bilingual education initiative,
Proposition 227, will take place June 2.
The initiative, ahead by a 63%-23% margin among likely voters in a new
Los Angeles Times poll, would end most bilingual programs in California
and give students with limited English skills about one year of special
English classes before placing them in the mainstream.
How California votes on the measure could
have nationwide repercussions because the state has more students with
limited English skills than any other: 1.4 million. About 30% of them are
in formal bilingual programs, including some two-way programs. But the
more common approach in California is "transitional" bilingual
education, in which students often spend more time being taught in their
native language than in English during their first school years.
Educators in Miami, home to the first bilingual
public school in the modern era, are baffled by the cultural and political
firefight over bilingual education on the other side of the country.
"We view it here differently than they
do in California," said Miami school board member Perla Tabares Hantman.
"We see it as a business opportunity for students."
Noting that their region's trade with Latin
America amounts to billions of dollars a year, business leaders say Miami
cannot afford to do without bilingual education.
"I don't give a hoot about the political
aspects of it," said James F. Partridge, chief of Latin American and
Caribbean operations for Visa International, a branch of the credit card
company. "To me, that's a lot of garbage. I'm interested in the financial
well-being of this community. We need bilingual people to survive."
Partridge is so concerned about the issue
that his office here gives remedial lessons in Spanish and Portuguese to
dozens of employees whose weak bilingual skills don't allow them to communicate
with clients in those languages.
The pro-bilingual movement in the 340,000-student
Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth-largest district, highlights
several issues often overlooked in the Proposition 227 debate.
In California, bilingual education is usually
seen as a program just for students with limited English skills. But here,
bilingual education is sold as a program for everyone.
In California, fluency in English is the
overriding priority. Here, no one denies that English is essential, but
other languages--including Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian-Creole--are
also deemed vital.
In California, many people assume that the
children of immigrants can learn their native language from family while
studying only in English at school. Here, many people have concluded that
native language skills erode without help from schools.
Consider the story of Hilda Garcia, 26,
born to Cuban parents and raised in Miami. She learned Spanish at home
but attended English-only schools as a child. Now she works for a steamship
line that does business with Panama, and she finds her Spanish sorely lacking.
"I never was able to learn perfect
Spanish. We all speak Spanglish," Garcia said, referring to a hybrid
of Miami's two dominant languages. "I regret that very much. Our faxes,
our e-mail, everything is in Spanish. I have to have three dictionaries
next to me to make sure it all gets translated correctly."
Hoping to give her 6-year-old son, Jonathan,
a formal grounding in Spanish, Garcia has enrolled him in Coral Way Elementary
School. The school on Cuban Memorial Boulevard in the Little Havana district
lies just south of a shrine with a perpetual flame burning for those who
died at the Bay of Pigs.
All students spend three hours a day learning
in English in one classroom and two hours in Spanish in another. Teachers
boast of students who are exposed to Shakespeare and Cervantes by the time
they leave for middle school. Even E.D. Hirsch, the renowned education
conservative and advocate of "cultural literacy," has given the
school his endorsement in a signed plaque that hangs in the principal's
No distinctions are made among the newcomer
from Nicaragua who has limited English ability, the young Haitian who speaks
mainly English and Creole and the third-generation Cuban American who knows
a bit of Spanish and a lot of English.
About a third of the school's students start
with limited English skills, officials say, but nearly all are close to
fluency by third grade. On standardized tests, students score in the 71st
percentile in math computation and 47th percentile in English reading comprehension--considered
good marks for an urban area.
Principal Migdania D. Vega said she has
hosted legions of out-of-town educators, including a recent delegation
from the Los Angeles Unified School District. What makes the difference,
she said, is attitude. Bilingual education here is seen as "enrichment"
rather than "remedial."
Some research has found that two-way programs,
also known as "dual immersion," are more effective than other
kinds of bilingual or English-intensive teaching methods.
The approach, Vega said, "needs a lot
of support, a lot of commitment, a lot of belief in what you're doing."
Birthplace of the New Bilingualism
Marjorie Figueroa has no doubts. The
7-year-old daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, a native Spanish speaker,
is an archetypal bilingual success story for Miami civic leaders. She was
writing an account of Mother's Day in class one morning in clear English.
The confident second-grader looked up from
her journal to tell a reporter that she speaks "English to my sister
and brother, to my dad Spanish and English, and to my mother, Spanish,
because she doesn't know English."
It was at Coral Way Elementary in 1963 that
bilingual education was reborn, a response to the influx of Spanish-speaking
children after the communist takeover of Cuba. Teaching in two languages,
common in other eras of American history, had fallen out of practice after
the First World War amid a wave of nationalism and English-only sentiment.
The school helped inspire the landmark federal
Bilingual Education Act in 1968. In California, mandatory English-only
education was repealed the previous year under then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Despite the success at Coral Way Elementary,
schools elsewhere in Miami kept teaching almost entirely in English. Most
Cuban emigres didn't seem to mind, leaving Hilda Garcia's generation to
learn the Spanish of the streets and the home rather than the Spanish of
the business world or academia. Newcomers were given some classroom help
in their native language, but for the most part, English was the rule.
The new push for bilingual education is
coming from the Miami business community. In California, by contrast, few
businesses or business groups have spoken out against Proposition 227.
A 1995 survey of businesses in Miami and
surrounding Dade County found that more than half did at least 25% of their
work in Spanish. What's more, 95% of the businesses surveyed agreed on
the importance of a bilingual work force.
Another study by a University of Miami geographer found evidence that Dade
County's Hispanic (the term preferred here over Latino) inhabitants who
know English and Spanish earn more than those who know only English--perhaps
as much as $3,000 a year more, on average.
Unz Initiative Puts Emphasis on English
Ron K. Unz, the businessman who authored
Proposition 227, says he supports bilingualism. But he asserts that bilingual
education has failed to teach hundreds of thousands of California students
the English they need to compete in colleges or the job market. He cites
other research suggesting that Latino immigrants in bilingual programs
failed to keep pace in earnings.
"Fluency in Spanish may prove a significant
advantage," Unz wrote in an opinion piece for The Times last October,
"but lack of literacy in English represents a crippling, almost fatal
disadvantage in our global economy."
An Unz campaign spokeswoman said that the
fine print of Proposition 227 would make two-way programs possible for
students whose parents obtain waivers. But critics say the initiative would
wipe them out.
English-only advocates in Dade County, in
years past quite vocal, seem for now a virtually silent minority.
Enos Schera, a retired electrician, is a
vice president of a group called Citizens of Dade United, which opposes
bilingual education and illegal immigration. Schera said many people resent
the emerging power of Spanish-speakers who have turned the county's demographics,
culture and politics upside-down.
English immersion, Schera said, is "the
best method for anybody to learn a language. Not this bilingual business."
He added: "They all have a mind-set around this town that everybody
should be learning Spanish to link into the Latin American trade. I think
that's deplorable. What if they [the students] choose not to become Spanish
But such views hold little influence here
these days. A community task force earlier this year recommended several
steps aimed at making all students bilingual. First on the list were about
$2.3 million worth of proposals to, among other things, add dozens of bilingual
and English-as-a-Second-Language teachers at all grade levels and start
10 new two-way bilingual programs in elementary schools. About 30 elementary
schools now have such programs, out of 200 districtwide.
Recommendations for ensuing years, which
cost considerably more, include requiring three years of foreign-language
study in high school and doubling the amount of Spanish language instruction
in all elementary schools--to one hour a day from the current half hour
minimum. The eventual goal is to make voluntary bilingual classes available
to every student.
The nine-member school board unanimously
approved the plan in March during a spirited multilingual meeting--which
included recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish and "Jingle
Bells" in Latin--though it put off funding decisions until June. Several
board members and school administrators now say they expect the first year's
funding to pass easily.
And in following years? "I'm going
to go as far as I can take it," said Roger C. Cuevas, the Cuban-born
school superintendent. "It's really all about economics. And the engine
of economic development is education."