HISD's bilingual policy can leave Spanish-speaking kids in a language lurch

H e's a nine-year-old third-grader who is segregated in a special bilingual classroom because he doesn't speak, understand, read or write English very well. Instead, he spends his days in the Spanish he understands and hears at home. Carlos (not his real name, but let's call him that) writes stories, learns social studies, reads and calculates all in Spanish, all under the eyes of a very dedicated young teacher. The walls are covered with bright, cheery pictures and instructions, nearly all in Spanish. Just because Carlos doesn't know English doesn't mean he has to fall behind in his classes in school. He can continue to learn, while his English catches up, and someday he can make the transition to regular classes.

To make that "someday" happen, Carlos has to do well enough on tests to show a basic ability to read English. The keys to getting him there may lie within his English as a Second Language textbook. But that book sits on a shelf until it is brought out for 45 minutes late in each class day.

His mother, who has grown increasingly concerned about her son's non-progress in English, went to the principal of Wilson Elementary when Carlos was in second grade and asked that he be put in regular classes. Sink or swim. Let's try it. She was told he hadn't scored well enough on his English tests to leave. But his mother didn't see how he was going to learn more English the way things were going. With the help of friends she marshaled her forces and went to a local Roman Catholic school. That school was more than willing to receive Carlos until it saw his test scores and how very little English he understood. It wouldn't be kind, wouldn't be fair, the parochial school officials told his mom, to put him in their classes. He wouldn't be able to keep up.

First-grade teacher Teresa Nuñez spends most of the day in Spanish.
Deron Neblett
First-grade teacher Teresa Nuñez spends most of the day in Spanish.

This summer some friends of the family may try to match the boy with a Berlitz teacher, an expensive, somewhat desperate attempt to change the course his life seems set upon. Otherwise, one friend (who declined to be named, saying that might identify the child) fears Carlos "is being educated to blow leaves and wash dishes."

Right now Carlos tests out at a pre-K level when it comes to English reading, according to the family friend. He is of average intelligence, she says, watches TV, loves Pokémon and can get along in English on a limited conversational level. But when she asks him to punch in certain numbers on the TV clicker, he doesn't often get those right.

And now for the punch line. Except it's not very funny. Carlos is no recent immigrant. He was born in the United States of America. He has attended school every year in HISD. His father was born in this country. Carlos is a 100 percent, certified, native-born U.S. citizen.

The question is, What have we created here?

Last July, Houston school trustees voted 62 to approve a new bilingual policy that stresses learning English "as rapidly as individually possible." Bilingual students (there are about 35,000 of them in HISD now, most in Spanish, some in Vietnamese) would be moved into English classes as soon as they could demonstrate proficiency in English reading. Co-authors of the policy were school board members Gabriel Vasquez and Jeff Shadwick, who at the same time encouraged all students to become "proficient in multiple languages."

Shadwick presented the new policy as a compromise between advocates of English immersion classes and those who think it best that students study in their native language for as many years as needed. In a guest column in the Houston Chronicle, he and Vasquez wrote that "Houston and the region are best served if students with limited English proficiency are fluent in English, educated beyond high school and prepared to be effective citizens."

The "no" votes were outraged. Trustee Olga Gallegos voted against the measure, saying, "Bilingual education is sacred to the Hispanic community in Houston, for that matter in Texas."

And despite the vote, the policy has not been implemented. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a grievance in August with the U.S. Department of Education's office of civil rights. MALDEF officials said they were afraid bilingual students would be moved into mainstream classes too early. They said there hadn't been enough communication, that Hispanics had not been brought into the process. The policy is undergoing revisions.

Present policy is that students are tested right after the start of the school year and are placed in bilingual classes if their scores are too low. There they remain until they can test their way out by taking the TAAS exam in English or scoring in the 40th percentile or better on the reading portion of the Stanford test. While in bilingual classes, they take the TAAS in Spanish and the Aprenda, the Spanish equivalent to the Stanford. Growth in English is measured with the Language Assessment Scales. As long as students are passing their Spanish-language classes, they are promoted; it does not matter that they are not catching up in English.

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