Philadelpia Inquirer

Monday, June 8, 1998

Bilingual Classes Are Hit in Texas
There is no plan to cut back. The view in the state is different from that in California.
By GWEN FLORIO, Inquirer Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Daniel Arturo Bellini moved to this country from Mexico two years ago. But already, the first grader with deep dimples chatters easily in English.

"I only spoke a little bit when I came here," said Arturo, 7, "but I want to learn more."

If Arturo lived in California, he would do that by switching to all-English classes next year. By 61 percent to 39 percent, California voters last week approved Proposition 227, a ballot initiative that will gut the state's bilingual education program, limiting students to a single year of instruction.

Arturo's family, however, immigrated to Texas, which ranks third, after California and New York, in the number of students in bilingual classes. Most of the students in the Texas program speak Spanish.

But unlike California, Texas has no plans to cut back on bilingual education. Students like Arturo, who start their schooling with little or no English, are taught mostly in Spanish through elementary school.

If anything, said R.C. Rodriguez of the Texas Association for Bilingual Education, some educators in Texas would like to see even more instruction in Spanish -- and not just for Hispanic students.

"We're in a global economy now," he said. "Business owners want their employees to be bilingual. All students can benefit from bilingual education."

That two states with seemingly common issues take such vastly different approaches to bilingual education reflects the national muddle on the subject.

A quarter-century-old federal law requires public schools to provide English instruction, but leaves the method up to each state.

The result is a mishmash of teaching methods with wildly varying results.

"What you end up with are haphazard programs that are not well implemented," said Jorge Amselle, spokesman for the Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes bilingual education. "Even when they are well implemented, they don't produce results that are very impressive. And, when they're poorly implemented, it's a disaster."

The most common argument against bilingual education is that it produces students who understand neither English nor their own language well. That was the contention in California, where Proposition 227 enjoyed wide support among Latino voters, according to exit polls.

Dropout rate
Nationally, Hispanic students have the highest dropout rate -- 29.4 percent, compared with the national average of 11.4 percent -- said Mary Frase, a senior technical adviser at the National Center for Education Statistics.

However, the dropout rate jumps to 44 percent for Hispanic students born outside this country.

English proficiency appears to be a factor, Frase said. Among Hispanic students who spoke English well, the dropout rate was 19.2 percent, compared with 32.9 percent for students who spoke English poorly.

Such dismal statistics were cited repeatedly during the California Proposition 227 campaign.

One study, done last year at George Mason University and sponsored by the Center for Research in Education, Diversity and Excellence, would seem to bear out the contentions by opponents of bilingual education.

It found that students in traditional English as a Second Language programs -- with a few hours a week of English instruction -- scored poorly on standardized tests, compared with native English speakers.

But the same study also found that students who received more intensive bilingual instruction performed slightly better than those who grew up speaking English.

That is what Rodriguez wants for the students in the bilingual classes in San Antonio's Northeast Independent School District, where he coordinates bilingual education.

37 languages
About 1,400 of the district's 46,000 students have limited English skills. While Rodriguez counts 37 languages in his district, the majority of his students who are learning English speak Spanish.

Arturo Bellini attends the district's Stahl Elementary School. With the other children in his bilingual classes, he will spend most of his day being taught in Spanish, but will receive increasing amounts of English instruction, through the fifth grade.

In California, such students now will be given a single year of intensive English instruction, then will go into all-English classrooms.

But the philosophy in Texas is that the better those students learn things such as grammar and vocabulary in their own language, the more sense those concepts will make when they switch -- gradually -- to English.

The idea, Rodriguez said, is to "develop literacy to its fullest in the primary language."

By the time the students enter middle school, Rodriguez said, they should be ready for the transition to all-English classes.

"What we begin to notice is that children will begin to pick up English books, and comprehend what they're reading. . . . That usually happens very naturally about fourth or fifth grade."

Unlike his counterparts in California, Rodriguez has the luxury of high-level support for that approach.

While California Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a bill that would have set a three-year transition to English, and backed Proposition 227 instead, "in Texas, we have a governor [George W. Bush] who has stuck his neck out a little bit for bilingual education," Rodriguez said.

"It's just not an issue here," said DeEtta Culberston, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the state's public schools. "Texans do for Texans, and we do it right."

What Rodriguez and other proponents of bilingual education would like to see is more so-called dual-language programs -- designed to make English- and Spanish-speaking students proficient in both languages -- throughout the school system.

The George Mason study, done by Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier, gave high marks to such programs, which are in place in a handful of schools around the country.

"The two-way programs are the Lexus of bilingual education," said Jaime Zapata, spokesman for the National Center for Bilingual Education. In such programs, which feature dual immersion in both languages through high school, students learn not only to speak, but also to read and write comfortably in English and Spanish.

"Say you're dealing with business transactions," Zapata said. "You can't use the Spanish you learned at home, or on the playground, in the boardroom."

In Texas, Rodriguez said, educators are only just beginning to realize that two-way immersion programs make their students more marketable.

But in Miami, the business community has been vocal in support of more intensive language instruction.

"We've found that in order for us to be proficient as the gateway to the Americas, one of the things that we need to ensure is the growth of bilingual education," said Jay Malina, president of Xebec Trade Finance Corp. and incoming chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber has created a program called English Plus One that provides financial support to public schools for bilingual classes.

Dario Gamboa, a senior vice president at Visa International in Miami, said nearly a third of his 300 employees were enrolled in Spanish classes. Meanwhile, he said, he scouts the country for workers who are truly bilingual.

To people such as Gamboa and Malina, California's action seemed foolish.

"This causes isolation. This causes lack of vision," Gamboa said.

"It is mandatory," concurred Malina, "that our students of tomorrow speak two languages. It is not an option."