Friday, January 13, 2006

Houston (and America) We Have a Problem

My school is mostly ESL / Bi-Bilingual, which means we have numerous bi-lingual classes. Bi-lingual is sometimes a euphuism for mono-lingual and the lingual of mono is Spanish.

Intellectually and professionally, I understand the arguments that children learn best in their native language and that the transition to English will be smoother if they have a firm foundation in reading and writing in their first language. I understand we have to value their language and culture. I don’t want a repeat of the days when children were punished for speaking Spanish at school. With the Hispanic population in America growing by leaps and bounds it can only be to anyone's advantage to be fluent and literate in both English and Spanish. I wish I spoke better Spanish though I'm learning – my new words of the week are "Platypus" and "burrow".

But these children are being done a disservice since born in Texas , American Citizens are graduating from the 5th grade and aren’t capable of reading a newspaper or carrying on a conversation of any depth in English.

The recent immigrants (and no, we don’t ask their mode of transport) are not part of this problem. They apply themselves to learning English and are extremely motivated. Many of them pick up the language quickly and immerse themselves in books

In my district, children who enter bi-lingual education have an opportunity to “exit” at the end of the third grade if their test scores warrant the move. Those children do just fine; sometimes 4th grade is a bit rocky but by 5th grade they are on track with their English only peers. They have a future and a future that includes college and the American Dream.

However, there is also a group of about 15 or 20 kids from our 3 bi-lingual classes who don’t exit. They end up lumped together in a 4th grade and then in a 5th grade bi-lingual class. There are all sorts of reasons - they aren’t to bright, they aren’t motivated, they are lazy, their home life isn’t supportive of education, they miss many days of school or they frequently change schools. By 5th grade these kids, who have been together since PreK are a tight little world. They live in a 100% Spanish environment at home and it’s no different at school.

Most of them read on a 2nd or 3rd grade level at best and once they get to middle school they are tossed into ESL or English only classes where they encounter textbooks they can’t comprehend and lectures they don’t understand. No wonder the Hispanic drop out rate is so high.

It’s not for lack of good teachers. The bi-lingual teachers, all the teachers at my school are hard working and dedicated and really, truly care about all the children and want them to succeed.

Do I have a solution to this problem? No. Bi-Lingual education is a hot potato. There are so many stakeholders. You have the publishers who produce the materials, the university programs who train the teachers, the administrators within the school districts, the politicians who need the Hispanic vote and members of the Hispanic community themselves. They all want a piece of the pie.

The only ones are going hungry are the kids who, at the age of 10 are are on hot career track to being day laborers and hotel maids. There isn't a piece of that pie in their futures.

1 comment:

iliana said...

I have a problem with ESL classes because I've seen too many kids that seem to never leave those ESL classes (like you said). Actually, what I'm finding is that a lot of those kids can't speak either language correctly!

You see, when I moved to the States there weren't any ESL classes. Was it a bit tough getting the hang of things? Sure, but I learned English quickly. After being here for 3 months I was already speaking, reading and doing even better than some of the other native English speakers.

I feel like ESL doesn't push the kids to learn English. Of course, I'm basing all of this on my own experience and that of my family and friends.

I don't know what a good solution would be but it is sad to see so many of these kids not learning English as quickly as they could.