Latino Parents Decry Bilingual Programs

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jul 14 14:04:30 UTC 2004

>>From the NYTimes, July 14, 2004

Latino Parents Decry Bilingual Programs

ON a sultry night in late June, when the school term was nearly over, two
dozen parents gathered in a church basement in Brooklyn to talk about what
a waste the year had been. Immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican
Republic, raising their children in the battered neighborhood of Bushwick,
they were the people bilingual education supposedly serves. Instead, one
after the other, they condemned a system that consigned their children to
a linguistic ghetto, cut off from the United States of integration and
upward mobility.

These parents were not gadflies and chronic complainers. Patient and
quiet, the women clad in faded shifts, the men shod in oil-stained work
boots, they exuded the aura of people reluctant to challenge authority,
perhaps because they ascribed wisdom to people with titles, or perhaps
because they feared retribution. With the ballast of one another's
company, however, they spoke. Gregorio Ortega spoke about how his son
Geraldo, born right here in New York, had been abruptly transferred into a
bilingual class at P.S. 123 after spending his first four school years
learning in English. Irene De Leon spoke of her daughter being placed in a
bilingual section at P.S. 123 despite having done her first year and a
half of school in English when the family lived in Queens. Benerita
Salsedo wondered aloud why, after four years in the bilingual track at
P.S. 145 in Bushwick, her son Alberto still had not moved into English
classes. Her two other children were also stuck in bilingual limbo.

"I'm very angry," Ms. Salsedo said in Spanish through an interpreter. "The
school is supposed to do what's best for the kids. The school puts my
kids' education in danger, because everything is in English here." And the
children had no trouble expressing their own frustration lucidly enough in
English. "I ask the teacher all the time if I can be in English class,"
said Alberto, a 9-year-old who will enter sixth grade in the fall.  "The
teacher just says no." For the time being, Alberto added, he learns
English by watching the Cartoon Network.

Listening to this litany, I experienced the sensation that Yogi Berra
memorably called "dj vu all over again." Five years earlier, in the
rectory of another church only a few blocks away, another group of
immigrant parents voiced the identical complaints about bilingual
education - that the public schools shunted Latino children into it even
if those pupils had been born in the United States and previously educated
in English, and that once the child was in the bilingual track it was
almost impossible to get out. An association of Bushwick parents,
virtually all of them Hispanic immigrants, had gone as far as suing in
State Supreme Court in a futile attempt to reform the bilingual program in
local schools.

Back then, the school system's many critics ascribed the bilingual fiasco
in Bushwick largely to the failed policy of decentralization. What
"community control" meant then in Bushwick was a school district dominated
by the neighborhood's City Council member, Victor Robles ( now the city
clerk). School jobs, including those in bilingual education, were
patronage plums.

For years, bilingual education coasted along on its perception as a
virtual civil right for Hispanics. Maybe such a reputation was deserved 30
years ago, when the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund sued and won a consent
decree requiring that New York City offer bilingual education. But as the
innovation hardened into an orthodoxy, and as a sort of employment niche
grew for bilingual educators and bureaucrats, the idealistic veneer began
to wear away.

The grievances of Bushwick's parents point at an overlooked truth. The
foes of bilingual education, at least as practiced in New York, are not
Eurocentric nativists but Spanish-speaking immigrants who struggled to
reach the United States and struggle still at low-wage jobs to stay here
so that their children can acquire and rise with an American education,
very much including fluency in English.

As a candidate for mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg assailed the status quo in
bilingual education and called for its replacement with English-immersion
classes. His pledge rested on firm ground. Reports commissioned by
Chancellor Ramon Cortines in 1994 and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in 2000
concluded that children qualified for mainstream classes more rapidly
coming from English as a Second Language programs than from bilingual
ones. E.S.L. classes take place largely in English; bilingual education in
the students' native language.

With decentralization dismantled in 2002 and a hand-picked school
chancellor installed the next year, Mayor Bloomberg seemingly backed away.
Diana Lam, the top aide to Chancellor Joel I. Klein until her ouster, was
both a product and proponent of traditional bilingualism. The mayor now
emphasizes improving the existing bilingual program, despite its
demonstrable shortcomings.

WITH Ms. Lam gone, perhaps the mayor and Mr. Klein can fulfill their
erstwhile pledges. Carmen Faria, the new deputy chancellor, yesterday
promised large-scale reforms beginning next September. What she means by
that is not junking bilingual education or even curtailing its use as much
as improving teacher training and incorporating clear performance
standards and oversight. Yet the Department of Education already has a
highly successful model of E.S.L. instruction in two existing high
schools, Bronx International and La Guardia International.

"Bushwick is a test case of how bilingual programs are actually being
implemented," said Michael Gecan, a national organizer for the Industrial
Areas Foundation, which has worked closely with parents there for more
than a decade. "We have great confidence in Klein. We've found him to be
very responsive and very aggressive. But we've been concerned about the
bilingual effort. This is a large vestige of the old school culture. It
remains in the system. And it's intensively guarded by the local
politicians and the teachers' union."

In one respect, though, the bilingual program in Bushwick did subscribe to
the English-immersion approach. Parent after parent in the church basement
last month remembered receiving, and then naively signing, a letter from
school that apparently constituted their agreement to having a child put
into bilingual classes. The letter, recalled these Spanish-speaking
parents, was written only in English.

E-mail: sgfreedman at

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