Sunday, May 27, 2007

My bilingual encounters

I was once the member of a school board in a large district in the Chicago suburbs. I like to think of it as four years held captive by socialists, but it was a learning experience.

I have come to believe that if you were to put 20 top education experts in a room and asked them to put together a program to halt the assimilation process, they could do no better than the transitional bilingual program as it exists today in our school district.

Under “Other Business” at one board meeting I requested that the superintendent study ways to shorten the bilingual program from 4-5 years to 2-3 years. I pointed out that the publication Education Week recently ran a story about teaching English in Puerto Rico in preparation for an appeal for statehood.

The story indicated that the Secretary of Education in Puerto Rico was implementing a plan to teach students Math and Science using English textbooks. Since we had just completed a purchase of textbooks in Spanish for our kids, I said something like: “The frightening thing is that a student in Puerto Rico may have a greater chance of being exposed to English than a bilingual student in our district.”

I also reminded my colleagues that due to budget restraints, all we were able to offer our middle school students were nine week survey courses in French and Spanish. Only the foreign born and their offspring were given intensive language classes.

I didn’t want to eliminate the bilingual program; merely shorten it.

My request didn’t get much attention from my fellow board members, and it didn’t get any press coverage either. But two weeks later the board room was packed with teachers, parents, and cute little brown-eyed kids. They had been mobilized by the district employees who make a living in bilingual education. They wanted to make it clear that the program was off limits to the board.

Perhaps the most revealing person to speak (and one who even got the attention of other board members) was a woman in her late twenties with just a slight Spanish accent. She told us that she was the product of our bilingual program and that she liked it so much that she had enrolled her own son in it! She said knowing two languages, especially English and Spanish, was so valuable in our society and she wanted her son to have that advantage.

Other board members picked up on that message; people were using it for a second generation as an intensive dual language program. But the only people who could get it were Hispanics.

Since I could only count one other vote on the board to advance the idea of shortening the transition time, it went nowhere.

But at the request of the Director of Bilingual Education I did agree to visit some bilingual classes to see for myself. In the next few days you will see the results of my visits and other close encounters of the bilingual kind. Look for the blogs.

I’ve always wondered how they can even carry on with a straight face. The mantra of Special Education is mainstream, mainstream, mainstream. You look for the least restrictive environment for the student. And sometimes people are critical that we are pushing Special Ed kids out of the program too fast.

But when it comes to bilingual, it is the exact opposite. They keep them as long as they can get away with it. Don’t you dare suggest shortening the program. They aren’t ready yet.

If they were completely honest with themselves they would admit that the reason kids linger in the program is to make it look good. You need a certain percentage of high performers to mask the fact that foreign born Hispanics do not value education, do not work with their kids, and their children are not academically prepared to work at grade level.

We can’t possibly tell the world that these children are going to need more work, not necessarily because of language but because of where they came from.

Look at virtually any school district's stats anywhere in the country and you will see that the highest drop out rates are for Hispanic male students. I can almost guarantee it.

Another myth perpetrated by the bilingual department is that they educate children for the same amount or even less than the per pupil cost of other children. That may be true on the surface but you need to explain to them that bilingual education requires a duplicate set of teachers, books, classrooms, fixtures, and busses. Therefore, the entire program is an additional expense.

And you need to remind them that their program sponges off the rest of the school for art, music, food service, and extracurricular activities. They are not a stand-alone program. They are borrowing from the other kids and the costs get charged to their per-pupil expenses. So stop the foolish talk about being cheaper than educating the native kids.

You’ll like this next tidbit. The Salt Lake City School District sent a letter of apology to Hispanic parents for dabbling in immigration matters and frightening the illegal aliens in town. (see Salt Lake Tribune, 7/22/06 “Latino parents receive apology”). What was their crime? They had the nerve to ask students at one middle school how long they have lived in the United States. They were just trying to assess the needs of the kids. This apology came after a complaint to the federal Office of Civil Rights.

And I also learned from the experience that the Salt Lake City School District has a position called the “assistant to the superintendent for equity and advocacy”. Now isn’t that special!

Watch for my four installments of bilingual field experiences.

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