Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 11 14:50:37 UTC 2010

Bilingual Ed’s Abolitionists
by JJMiller on August 10, 2010

April 10, 1996


School superintendent Thomas Doluisio was puzzled. His Bethlehem, Pa.,
district had an elaborate program of Spanish-language classes for its
large population of Spanish-speaking children. Proponents of bilingual
education said this would help Hispanic children adjust when they
moved on to English-only classes — which they were supposed to do
after three years. But it wasn’t working. Hispanic students lagged
behind their peers in test scores, reading levels and graduation
rates. “Our college-track courses were lily-white,” Mr. Doluisio says.
“Our remedial classes were filled with Puerto Rican kids. And the
ability to speak English explained most of the difference.” What went

Mr. Doluisio found out in a 1992 meeting with his district’s
elementary-school principals. The short answer: seven years. That’s
how long it was taking a typical student in the bilingual program to
move into regular classes taught in English. Bethlehem had effectively
established an English-second policy, thanks to educators who
considered native-language training of primary importance. “I was
flabbergasted,” Mr. Doluisio says. More than that, he was angry. And
then he got busy. Within a year, Mr. Doluisio led a stunning
transformation of Bethlehem’s language policy. His district became one
of a handful in the country to reverse course on bilingual education.
Bethlehem’s Spanish-speaking students are now immersed in
English-speaking classrooms. The school district switched policies
only after a bitter struggle that had divided the community. But
thanks to Mr. Doluisio’s leadership, the benefits of English immersion
are starting to show, and the naysayers are starting to change their
minds. Bethlehem provides a stirring example of how other school
districts can challenge the bilingual education orthodoxy — and win.

The Bethlehem Area School District, serving 13,000 children, is
Pennsylvania’s fifth-largest. About 10% of its students cannot speak
English well, and of these, 86% speak Spanish in their homes. Most of
these children are Puerto Rican, but immigrants from Central and South
America make up a growing part of the Spanish-speaking population.

Before the 1993-94 school year, Bethlehem essentially segregated its
Spanish-speaking students, busing them to two elementary schools where
Spanish was the language of the classroom, the lunchroom and the

After learning about bilingual education’s dismal exit rates, Mr.
Doluisio began to investigate the program. He quickly uncovered more
outrages. “There were kindergartners — five-year-olds who were at the
perfect age to start learning a new language — who did not hear a
single word of English all day long,” he says. “I probably should have
known that this sort of thing was going on, but nobody told me. I had
to discover it for myself.”

Mr. Doluisio decided that Bethlehem’s language policy needed a
complete overhaul. He persuaded the school board to schedule a series
of public meetings devoted to bilingual education — and to discuss its
possible repeal. Community interest was so great that the board had to
hold its gatherings in the Liberty High School auditorium, the
district’s largest.

The issue immediately divided along ethnic lines. Many Latino parents
felt that the removal of bilingual education would jeopardize their
children’s education. Some of Mr. Doluisio’s supporters undercut him
when they stepped up to the microphone and made derogatory comments
about Puerto Ricans. “These meetings were very heated,” Mr. Doluisio
recalls. “I had to have cops in the back of the room to make sure that
there was no trouble.” At one point, a group of Latino activists
physically surrounded the school board and, led by a priest from out
of town, engaged in a prayer to save Bethlehem’s bilingual-education

The Pennsylvania Department of Education also frowned on Mr.
Doluisio’s efforts. Myrna Delgado, the state’s bilingual-education
coordinator, urged the school board to vote against him.

The rancor of the hearings weighed heavily on Mr. Doluisio, especially
the ugly way in which race and ethnicity had intruded. It appeared
that all the Latinos were on one side, all the Anglos on the other.
“This was an extremely unpleasant time for me, and for everybody,” he

Midway through the controversy, however, a group of sympathetic
Hispanic parents contacted him. They were professionals, led by Luis
Ramos of Pennsylvania Power & Light. “We hoped to make it clear that
Latinos want their children to learn English, and that the
superintendent was heading in the right direction,” says Mr. Ramos,
whose two children have attended Bethlehem schools. “Their support
really gave me the courage to forge ahead,” says Mr. Doluisio.

In February 1993, the school board voted to abolish bilingual
education and adopted a goal that “all language minority students in
the district become fluent in the English language in the shortest
amount of time possible to maximize their opportunity to succeed in
school.” All students would attend neighborhood schools taught in
English, and students who required special help would receive
instruction in English as a Second Language (ESL) several times a
week. “It was our belief that if the Chinese and Russian kids could do
well in a regular classroom without bilingual education, then so could
the Spanish-speakers,” says Rebecca Bartholomew, the principal of
Lincoln Elementary.

Immersion in English initially met with a lot of resistance from
nonbilingual teachers. They were used to dealing with children who
would understand their most basic instructions. “In the first week of
the new program, we had homeroom teachers who would tell their class
to line up, and half the class wouldn’t understand,” says Ann
Goldberg, who runs the immersion program for Bethlehem.

Before long, however, opinions started to shift. Hispanic parents are
gradually beginning to approve of English immersion. One who likes the
switch is Margarita Rivas. A native of Puerto Rico, she was concerned
at first that her four children would not succeed in school if they
did not hear much Spanish. But then she changed her mind. “It’s very
important that they know how to speak English well in this country,”
she says. “Now they speak English better than Spanish, and they are
helping me and my husband improve our English.”

After the immersion program had been in place for one year, Bethlehem
surveyed the parents of its Spanish-speaking students. The forms went
out in two languages, since many of the parents speak no English.
Eighty-one percent of the respondents said that their children had
“progressed well academically” in the English-immersion setting. Only
7% said that they “did not make progress.” Eighty-two percent of the
respondents rated the new program as “good” or “very good,” 12% called
it “adequate” or “satisfactory,” and only 1% deemed it “poor.”

The teachers have started to come around as well. “I was against
immersion in the beginning, but I’m not nearly as critical now,” said
Jean Walker, a fourth-grade teacher who has taught in Bethlehem
schools for 24 years. “I didn’t think I’d be able to communicate, but
these kids learned English faster than I thought they would.” A survey
showed that Ms. Walker is not alone — 62% of Bethlehem teachers said
that students were making “substantial progress” in learning English
after being in the program for one year. Only 13% said students made
“little” or “no progress.” The school district will publish its first
academic evaluation of the program this summer, and the results are
sure to be watched closely by educators both inside and outside of

Mr. Doluisio was officially condemned at the 1994 convention of the
National Association for Bilingual Education. His detractors accuse
him of being driven by politics, even of riding a tide of
anti-immigrant sentiment. He says his goal is to help children succeed
by raising expectations for their performance. “For years we expected
our Latino kids to learn differently. We didn’t think they could cut
it in mainstream classes with the native English speakers or the kids
from Asia or Poland,” says Mr. Doluisio. “The results were like a
self-fulfilling prophecy. Today we’re saying that Latino kids are just
as capable as any other group of students.”

Mr. Miller, a Bradley fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is vice
president of the Center for Equal Opportunity. This article is
excerpted from Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship.

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