ROCHESTER — Community leaders, teachers and parents agree that the city school district needs to re-evaluate its bilingual-education program to determine whether its teaching methods play a role in the low graduation rates and high drop-out rates plaguing Latino students.
"We, as a community, need to come together and continue to push for equity for our kids," said Hilda Rosario Escher, president and chief executive officer of the Ibero-American Action League. "The youth are the future of Latinos. If they are not educated, they will not have access to great jobs. Education is the way out of poverty."
Ibero officials hosted a June 24 meeting with Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard to discuss the state of bilingual education.
During the forum, which more than 60 people attended, Brizard said a bilingual program should provide challenging curriculum content while also teaching English skills.
"We don’t do well with (students) if they (spend) a long time as English-language learners," he said. "Different kids require different approaches."
While the forum focused on Latino students, district officials also said the diversity of students served by programs for bilingual education and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is on the rise. The population of English-language learners — a term Brizard used repeatedly during the forum — also jumped from 2,008 students in 2005 to 3,453 students at the end of the 2007-08 school year, noted Lourdes Odell, director of program development for the school district’s bilingual department.
"It’s certainly a population that needs attention … Hispanics as well as non-Hispanics," she said.
Odell said that she supports teaching models that help students maintain their native languages while teaching them English, but added that this teaching method poses a challenge for the district due to the large influx of Somali and Burmese families.
"The best practices and current research include native language, and that will continue," she said. "We’re not going to throw that out the window."
To assist non-Hispanic bilingual students, the district has relied on Catholic Family Center translators and interpreters, who also enable school officials to communicate with parents, Odell added.
Parents at the Ibero forum also expressed frustration over the lack of bilingual services for students at the high-school level. Currently, only Monroe and Jefferson high schools provide bilingual instruction, although ESOL services are available at other high schools, Odell noted.
At the Ibero forum, Brizard remarked that no student should be told there is no room in those bilingual high-school programs.
"If you have a child who needs services, it’s our job to provide those," he said to loud applause.
Danielle Hippert, an English language-arts teacher for seventh and eighth grades at Dr. Freddie Thomas High School, said the district should provide more support for bilingual students in the other high schools. She noted that her school must share its ESOL teacher with another school.
Hippert was one of 20 teachers who participated this summer in the Genesee Valley Writing Project Summer Institute at the University of Rochester’s Warner School. The institute provides professional development from other teachers on ways to improve student literacy. Through a grant from the State University of New York at Brockport, the four-week project in July also looked at bilingual- and bicultural-literacy education.
One of the bilingual sessions presented at the institute by Lisa Pritchard, a teacher from School No. 33, focused on a dual-language model through which students learn curriculum content in two languages. Hippert said that model is the way of the future.
"A dual-language program in the early years will provide students with a sense of respect for others –other cultures, differences," Hippert added. "And I believe it will help increase their propensity for learning as they get older."
Nathan Meade, an English teacher at Monroe High School, said the district’s other model of transitioning students from their native languages to English-only may alienate some students.
While dual-language programs will not work for everyone, Meade said Hispanic students would benefit from greater support for them to maintain their Spanish literacy, and that this might also help address concerns about graduation and drop-out rates. Monroe is one of the city schools that offers a Language Academy, an accelerated program that enables students with a strong Spanish background to develop proficiency in both English and Spanish.
"We need to encourage our students to be proud of who they are, to be self-confident, to see themselves and their unique strengths and weaknesses as something to celebrate, not as anchors that weigh them down," Meade said. "Pride is key to success, and all of our students have a lot to be proud of. We need to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of seeing native Spanish speaking as a deficit to overcome, but instead as a tool that can help make our entire community stronger."