Bilingual education tool faces
Front Page above the cut in this morning's San Antonio Express
The reasons are varied and include a national political debate over bilingual education. But not putting such a well-regarded tool to more use for the 30,081 Spanish-speaking students in Bexar County public schools — more than 10 percent — comes at the kids' expense, advocates say.
They fear that dual language, though it is growing, remains stymied by misconceptions and a powerful national commitment to English first.
English language learners, as they're known, make up nearly 16 percent of the state's 4.5 million public school children, and are growing by a rate of 4 percent annually.
These students score lower on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills than their peers and graduate at lower rates. Some see a crisis in the making.
English-language children are totally immersed in a second language, usually Spanish. Spanish-speaking children first are taught key skills such as reading, math and science in Spanish, with English slowly introduced.
Most San Antonio programs begin teaching 90 percent in Spanish and add English at a rate of 10 percent each year. By fifth grade, students are expected to be able to be fluent in two languages.
Local Dual Language and Spanish Immersion
elementary school programs:
Sources: local districts,
Though every local school district serves some Spanish speakers, two of the districts with the largest percentage — San Antonio and Edgewood — have scaled back their programs, despite research proving its effectiveness.
Northside and North East have launched pilot programs. Alamo Heights, East Central, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City and Harlandale are among the smaller districts embracing versions of dual language.
Houston, the state's largest district, has led the charge statewide, gradually adding dual language programs since 1994 with promising results.
A number of impoverished border districts — among them Hidalgo, Ysleta and Canutillo — have won acclaim for excellent test scores using the dual language model.
It's a powerful tool for students who are all to often described in terms of their "achievement gap" compared to their English-speaking peers.
In eighth-grade math, for example, 29 percent of these students passed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills last year, compared to 57 percent of low-income children and the state average of 68 percent.
Dual language helps close that divide.
At Northside's Gregorio Esparza Accelerated Elementary School, dual language students — regardless of their first language — outscore their peers in almost every subject, with the biggest advantage appearing in fifth-grade science.
"By second grade, the kids who are native speakers are impossible to differentiate," said Principal Melva Matkin, who added: "That's why the teachers love dual language, because they're able to deal with the content and not focus on language instruction."
In Houston, Spanish speakers entered school significantly behind native speakers, but caught up between fifth and sixth grade and went on to surpass their peers, the 2002 study by Collier and Wayne Thomas found.
Traditional bilingual programs, which push English at an early age, don't work because they practically scream at kids, "you don't speak the right language, we're giving you your language until you do," said Terry Armstrong, bilingual and English as a Second Language supervisor for the Houston Independent School District.
The local landscape
The city's largest urban school district piloted the program at a few schools with plans to add many more. But in 2000, then-Superintendent Rubén Olivárez arrived with what he saw as a more pressing priority — improving the district's middle schools by converting both elementary and middle schools to pre-kindergarten through eighth grade charter schools called "academies."
As a result, the number of dual language schools declined — a move with potentially serious consequences in a district where 17 percent of students aren't native English speakers.
Olivárez, who left the district last summer, said data supporting dual language was never brought to his attention. But his goal, he said, was to allow principals to develop unique programs at their schools.
Superintendent Robert Durón, who replaced Olivárez, said he'd recently learned of the research, and was impressed with scores at the district's three dual language schools.
"We want to support it and maybe expand it," Durón said of dual language. "We just need to figure out how to incorporate it into our strategic plan."
Another early leader, Edgewood, where 21 percent of the children aren't native speakers, reduced its dual language classes to one school because of school closures, said Emma Mungia, the district's bilingual director.
Most local districts are moving in the opposite
That's what Dallas did last year, and it's now gradually converting to more "two-way" dual language that mixes English and Spanish speakers. Those take more time, said Stacie Hill, an elementary specialist who is overseeing the Dallas Independent School District efforts, and finding and training teachers can be a hurdle.
Houston has also found it makes sense to add schools at a "deliberate pace," said Armstrong, in order to inform and earn the support of English-speaking parents.
Northside, which serves about 7 percent English language learners, opened programs at two elementary schools in 2001, serving Spanish-speaking students from nine surrounding elementary schools as well as English speakers. The district hopes to eventually offer a special recognition on bilingual students' high school diplomas, and a third elementary school will launch a program next year, said R.C. Rodriguez, the district's director of bilingual and ESL education.
Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD serves all its Spanish speakers alongside English speakers in a dual language program at Schertz Elementary School, and East Central ISD expanded its offerings to three of its five elementary schools this year.
And Alamo Heights offers a popular Spanish immersion program at both its elementary schools, a choice it made because it didn't have enough Spanish speakers for a dual language program, said assistant superintendent Mary Zeigler.
Parents vie for limited spots in both Alamo Heights and East Central, which conduct lotteries for English-speaking parents and have waiting lists. Alamo Heights and Northside now offer subjects in the upper grades such as science and history in Spanish.
"I always thought there was more than one way to do something, because if I couldn't say it in one language I could say it in another," she said.
Her mother, Dawnya Franklin, put Nicole in
Bonham's first dual language class in 1995, and two siblings followed.
Still, Franklin said, she fought misperceptions
from family members about whether dual language was good for her kids.
"One is just a misunderstanding about what bilingual education is. A lot of people think they're never going to learn English. Another is that it costs more money," she said. "Another is standardized testing. Even though in Texas we have standardized testing in Spanish, administrators want to test children in English."
Such opposition persists. During the current Legislative session, for instance, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, opposed a proposal by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, to study the effectiveness of the state's approximately 245 dual language programs, saying that English should be taught in the home.
That view is a common one, experts say, leaving
dual language's future an open question.