Educators battle bilingual backlash
ROCHESTER -- Wanda Labrador offers a dual perspective on bilingual education, as a former student and now as an educator.
The Puerto Rico native moved to Rochester in 1985 at the age of 12. Because of a waiting list for the city school district's bilingual program, she started out at East High School.
"It was hard for me because I couldn't understand or communicate with anyone," Labrador said. "Shortly thereafter, I was enrolled in the bilingual program at Douglass Middle School. It was like going from darkness into the light. I felt at home there."
That experience led to her decision to teach for the city's bilingual program beginning in 1997.
"I am a firm believer that when children continue to learn in their native language, they are more successful in acquiring English," she said. "The more they know in their native tongue, the more they have to bring over to the second (language)."
That position is supported by research from national experts and local bilingual educators.
According to Cindy McPhail, director of Nazareth College's graduate Teaching English as a Second Language and Bilingual Extension programs, a government panel of researchers found that the use of a child's native language is very helpful in terms of developing literacy in general.
"People who fear that time is wasted in bilingual classes when instruction is in Spanish need not worry," she said. "Learning is happening and that knowledge can transfer to English."
Despite such research, several states including California Texas, Arizona and Massachusetts have eliminated bilingual programs and replaced them with one-year, intensive English programs, McPhail noted. The success of those programs remains under debate, she added.
"Bilingual education has come under attack in recent years," McPhail said. "I'm not sure if it's a feeling of concern about immigration, illegal aliens or a sense that using languages other than English in public schools is somehow un-American."
What opponents need to realize is that the main objective of bilingual education is for the child to learn English, said Diana Hernández, supervising director of Rochester's bilingual, English as a Second Language and Hispanic services.
More than 7,000 of the Rochester district’s 34,000-plus students are Latino. Of these students, 17 percent have limited English proficiency, Hernández added. The district also is seeing increasing numbers of refugees from Somalia enrolled in city schools.
Bilingual education has come under additional scrutiny not only from English-only supporters but also from state agencies that oversee the mandated testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act, local bilingual officials and teachers agreed.
"There's a hidden agenda," Hernández said, noting that English-only supporters "want to build one nation, one language. ... But our world is changing overnight. We have to become a global society."
The city's programming, which began in the 1970s, is diverse in itself. The department offers several language programs: bilingual classes to improve literacy in native language and English; a dual-language model for both non-English and English speakers to learn English and Spanish in multiple subjects; the Learning through English Academic Program to develop English proficiency and content knowledge; and English as a Second Language.
"You don't negate a student's first language," Hernandez said. "You use it as an instrument, a tool and you build upon that. You take what the child brings and enhance it."
The district offers students additional support through Saturday classes and a summer program begun three years ago that integrates bilingual and regular classroom instruction. The Jumpstart Academy -- which offers new families, immigrants and refugees an introduction to school instruction in August -- recently was awarded a grant to hire language coaches for the growing Somali students, Hernandez added. When additional interpreters are needed, the district works with Catholic Family Center, she said.
More parental support is needed for all these programs, said Maria Otero, president of the district's bilingual council, which is compromised of parents, students and bilingual staff members.
"The student is confident when the teacher is talking in his own language," said Otero, who moved to Rochester three years ago. "It helps make the student comfortable in a new place."
During a vocabulary lesson in the summer program at Henry W. Longfellow School No. 36, teacher Noel Ruíz emphasized to his students -- who will enter seventh grade in the fall -- that words have power. The program includes students from four city schools.
"People judge you by the words you speak," said Ruíz, a bilingual teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School No. 9.
Anthony Caseles, who moved here from Puerto Rico only two years ago, is grateful for the education and opportunities the bilingual program offers. He said he understands the need to learn English not only for the academic reasons but to converse with new friends who don't speak Spanish.
"We need both languages," said Anthony, 12.
Research by bilingual experts Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas supports this idea. Their findings indicate that over the long run, the most successful bilingual model is the two-way language model, according to McPhail.
"A crucial point in this research was that it takes time to reach high enough levels of academic fluency in English so that minority language students could meet or outperform their English-speaking peers," McPhail said. "The pressure for students to perform well on standardized tests often leads to instruction that focuses on short-term gains, but Thomas and Collier's work illustrates how necessary it is to keep the long-term goal in mind."
Henry Padron, a dual-language third-grade teacher at School No. 12, agrees.
"Learning English and Spanish adds to you as a person," he said. "It adds to you as a child. It increases your cultural awareness."
In a school district such as New York City's, this model is used in several languages including Chinese, Korean, Creole, Russian, French and Japanese, Padron added. Perhaps someday Rochester will add languages to its dual-language program, he said.
"It is a sad loss when a person feels that (he or she) must abandon a language other than English in payment for some version of the American dream," McPhail said. "When people are academically fluent in multiple languages, their job prospects are much stronger. It adds to the strength of our society. ... Through bilingual education, we foster young citizens who can recite the Pledge of Allegiance in two languages. Nothing could be better."