My wife is from Belgium. The country is bilingual; they speak Flemish (a variant of Dutch and German) in the north and French in the south. Schoolkids in Belgium learn their primary language in Grade school, the country’s other language in middle school, and must take a third language to graduate from High school.
One member of my wife’s family is — get this — a telephone operator for a multinational corporation in Belgium. I have no idea how many languages she speaks besides English, Flemish, Dutch, French, and Creole. But they make a darned fine living as operators /interpreters doing it.
And this month’s Texas Monthly magazine has a story about Ysleta Independent School District here in El Paso, Texas that’s doing a remarkably similar program:
In traditional bilingual classes, learning English is the top priority. The ultimate aim is to move kids out of non-English-speaking classrooms as quickly as possible. Students in dual language classes, on the other hand, are encouraged to keep their first language as they learn a second. And Ysleta’s program, called two-way dual language, is even more radical, because kids who speak only English are also encouraged to enroll. Everyone sits in the same classroom. Spanish-speaking kids are expected to help the English speakers in the early grades, which are taught mostly in Spanish. As more and more English is introduced into the classes, the roles are reversed. Even the teachers admit it can look like chaos to an outsider. “Dual language classes are very loud,” said Steven Vizcaino, who was an early student in the program and who graduated from Del Valle High in June. “Everyone is talking to everyone.”
“Learning how Spanish works helps them develop the cognitive skills they need to learn English well,” she said. When it all clicks into place, she said, it’s an amazing thing to see. “Switching between English and Spanish is like breathing for us now,” said Vizcaino, who is going to college in the fall at the University of the Southwest.
So what kind of results do they get with Two-Way Dual Language?
By the sixth grade, kids in the program—regardless of which language they spoke when they first enrolled—are outscoring native English speakers on the TAKS tests. They can also read, write, and speak Spanish at a sophisticated level. Not all schools in Ysleta offer dual language, but some that do have waiting lists of families seeking admission for their kids. And for obvious reasons: There was something amazing about sitting in the back of Garcia’s classroom and watching a group of confident and fully engaged young men and women tackling a college-level science course, knowing that most of them had started kindergarten with the enormous disadvantage of not speaking English.
Roughly 16 percent of all students in Texas public schools are not fluent in English, a figure that has more than doubled since 1991 and one that most experts consider to be a conservative estimate. The situation is most acute in the largest school districts, such as Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin, each of which is now a majority Hispanic district. In Dallas, one in three public school students is not fluent in English. Research shows that if these kids do not become proficient in English by the ninth grade, the likelihood that they will drop out of school increases dramatically. This is a big part of what is driving the alarming Hispanic dropout rate in Texas, where just seven in ten Hispanic kids finish high school.
By contrast, Ysleta ISD’s Eastwood and Bel Air HIgh Schools were both chosen as The Best Texas High Schools in 2005 by
The Texas Educational Excellence Project at Texas A&M University in a field that includes just about every magnet school in the state of Texas, while the Ysleta ISD’s schools are not magnet schools. Excellence in language education rubs off in other subjects, apparently.
So why isn’t this program being reproduced all over Texas? Two words, and the first one is “Politics”:
(N)ot a single bilingual education bill made it through the Legislature in the 2009 session, despite Judge Justice’s looming federal injunction. “Racism and old notions of education block reform session after session,” explained El Paso state senator Eliot Shapleigh. “What is clearly lacking is the political will to create the programs, fund them, and make them work.”
Shapleigh, a fifth-generation Texan now in his fourth term in the Senate, has emerged as the Legislature’s most vocal champion for bilingual education. He refers to Ysleta’s vision statement, which calls for all students to graduate from high school fluent in at least two languages, as the “revolutionary key to the future of Texas.”
There is never a good time for a Republican to get behind bilingual education in Texas. The challenge is convincing the Republican party primary voters to whom she must appeal. The number of people in this state who actively oppose bilingual educaton is actually quite small, but so is the number of people who would vote in a Republican primary election (or a special election), and the intersection between those two sets is considerable.
For many conservatives in Texas the debate over bilingual education is just one front in the fight over the state’s most pressing issue, illegal immigration. “We really don’t feel like taxpayers should be funding education for the children of people who came here illegally,” said Rebecca Forest, one of the founders of the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas. She felt the media, and maybe some conservative legislators, were underestimating the level of agitation in the grass roots over illegal immigration. “I mean, people are mad.”
The other is resistance from the hispanic speakers themselves:
Joann Orrantia, another pioneer at Alicia Chacón, was attracted to dual language for a different reason. She was raised in Fabens, a small town near El Paso. “When I grew up, we weren’t allowed to speak Spanish in school,” she said. (Like many El Pasoans, the only Spanish speakers they could understand well were their own grandparents.) “My parents were petrified. They said, ‘You’re an American, what are you doing? If you want them to know Spanish, you can teach them.’ But what could I teach them? How to speak to each other, maybe, but doing business in Spanish? No.”
Others never enter bilingual education programs at all, often because immigrant parents think that the classes will slow their children’s acquisition of English, a belief that many school administrators in Texas quietly share and which some seem to be exploiting in order to avoid complying with the law. In Port Arthur, for example, parents refuse bilingual services at eight times the state average, which has produced a school district with a large number of Spanish-speaking kids sitting in English-only classes.
Irene Favila, a social worker for an agency that serves migrant workers, said that the Hispanic middle class in Plainview, to the extent that there is one, is not reproducing itself. “We are losing so many of these kids,” she said. “Who will take over these positions if our kids are not skilled or educated?”
Personally, I think the Dual Languages system is just what Texas schools need, for several reasons:
- As Ronald Reagan used to say, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” The Dual Language program lifts all the schools into higher academic excellence than comparable schools with Immersion programs.
- The “teamwork” system used (where Hispanic students teach anglos, and vice versa) builds a shared identity for the students and promotes a shared identity between them — unlike the divisive aspects of racial identities tha groups like La Raza or gangs identify with. That shared identity will be Texan, and ultimately American.
- American schools generally lag behind the world in language skills. This program promotes language skills in our kids and make them more marketable to international employers, not just American employers. It will restore the image American schools had formerly of being outstanding academically.
- Finally, while the “shared identity” mentioned earlier in many ways mimics the “melting pot” of years ago, the Dual language program promotes exposure to other cultures as well. For instance, students taking Chinese as their third language do Martial Arts for Physical Education classes. Exposure to other cultures allows the Multiculturalists to be satisfied, but still allows an American identity to be fostered through the program as well.
Why in the world the Texas legislature doesn’t expand this program statewide is beyond me. As the article points out, in 2040 the Hispanic population will be 53% of the population. An uneducated hispanic population will not be able to get higher-paying jobs or provide the quality work employers look for in a workforce.
The future of Texas may depend on it’s education choices today.