Bilingual Education in Inner City Public School Systems

“Give me the bliss of the ignorant or give me the strength to bear the knowledge.”-Elif Shafak

This quote rings true to my heart, mind, and soul the further I delve into the intricacies of bilingual education politics in the United States. It not only describes how education has transformed me personally, but it also describes the harsh realizations that I have come to as an advocate for bilingual education. In order for bilingual education to succeed there are many barriers to overcome both legislatively and culturally in our society. Legislatively, proposition 227 eliminated bilingual services for language minority students in California, despite federal law that protects them in our local public school system by requiring a minimal level of support using various second language methodologies. Culturally, an ongoing challenge I have struggled with is how to have constructive conversations concerning individual misconceptions about acquiring an additional language.

My experiences in public schools have led me to question whether bilingual education in lower class neighborhoods can be effectively implemented in conjunction with other, often conflicting, programs that are intended to raise standardized test scores. Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to work in inner-city bilingual education programs across the country. As a first year pre-kindergarten teacher in 2003, the school setting consisted of the transitional bilingual program which is the standard vehicle for learning English in Texas. In this model children were exposed to English ten percent of the day while the remaining ninety-percent was in Spanish. It was during this year that I acquainted myself with bilingual education terminology and methodology. This is also when I realized that being a teacher also meant assisting parents with accessing social services.

Later, in 2004, I attended graduate school in Ann Arbor, Michigan to get certified as a teacher. In the first phase of my practicum I was placed at a school in an affluent neighborhood. A third of the students in this first grade classroom spoke a language other than English, however the utilization of English as a Second Language strategies benefited all students. During the second phase of my practicum I was placed at a school in Dearborn, Michigan where all children spoke Arabic and English. Once again, I observed that the implementation of English as a Second Language strategies in the classroom encouraged all students to participate. Students also received Arabic language instruction for an hour a day outside the classroom. They were successful in learning two languages, although the influence of Arab and Middle Eastern cultures in the neighborhood certainly provided plenty of opportunities for children to converse in their native tongue. That said, the school had apparently gone through various second language program transformations throughout the years where Arabic was taught less and less in the classroom, and became more of a maintenance program due to the pressure to improve standardized test scores.

Upon graduating in 2005 I moved to Kansas City, Missouri and was offered the opportunity to teach in a self-contained English as a Second Language Kindergarten classroom. Maintaining the purity of the model was not as much a concern as the negative academic impact “immersion” had on standardized test scores once students reached the upper grade levels.

In 2006 I was then offered the opportunity to teach in a pilot program as a first grade dual language (two-way immersion) educator at a different school in the same district. During that school year, the dual language teachers strongly advocated maintaining the purity of the model when our school district enforced a reading program that was geared for the transitional model of bilingual education. Due to this experience the exploration and research into the proper implementation of bilingual programs took on a whole new urgency for me. I began to seriously consider furthering my knowledge of bilingual education by exploring doctoral studies.

Last summer in Kansas City I worked as a Spanish immersion teacher for a mixed second and third grade class. In this classroom children had been immersed in Spanish since kindergarten, and as a result they spoke fluent and academic Spanish. The most interesting aspect of this experience was the fact that the majority of the children spoke African-American vernacular English. This is when I began to contemplate the actual benefits of immersion when learning a minority language in an English dominant society.

Currently, as a bilingual literacy coach in Austin, we have struggled to increase standardized test scores, while at the same time maintaining the purity of the transitional model. The push to become literate in English is so great that teachers have lost sight of the objectives behind the transitional model. In the fourth and fifth grades almost no time is spent teaching in Spanish For instance, a small group of students are pulled out to work on their reading and writing strategies rather than keeping them in the classroom, which is more similar to the “pull-out” method.

My desire to develop a sense of clarity when advocating for bilingual education has driven me to tap into and develop outlets that allow me to explore my thoughts. Being a member of the Central Texas Association of Bilingual Educators (CTABE) allows for ample opportunities to discuss current trends in bilingual education with other colleagues. My blog (suzanne.mateus.com) also serves as a vehicle to develop my thoughts & experiences, both personally and professionally, about bilingual and bicultural education. In addition, this coming summer I am applying to be a Fulbright participant in a teacher program in Latin America. The objective of the program is to compare how the implementation of their bilingual programs compares to those in the United States of America. I look forward to sharing strategies with other teachers, and I am curious to see if they are experiencing similar issues when implementing bilingual education programs in low-socio-economic neighborhoods.

The extent of my work and experience as a bilingual educator will serve as a form of reference and reflection during my doctoral studies. I believe in advocating for bilingual education because studies have shown that when bilingual programs are implemented well, they can be successful no matter the children’s home-life or socio-economic background.* Based on my experiences and research the proper implementation of a model is one of the crucial factors to successfully acquiring a second language. However, the observations I have made lead me to speculate that various curriculum programs intended to raise standardized test scores actually impede the objectives of bilingual programs, thus making them detrimental to second language learners. In addition, I question whether a well implemented bilingual program is feasible when there are various competing curricular programs. These experiences and observations as a bilingual educator have driven me to pursue further academic endeavors with the intention of moving the conversation about bilingual education forward in a way that enhances its effectiveness in the real world.

*Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence. (2001). A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long-Term Academic Achievement: Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier. Available from http://crede.berkeley.edu/research/llaa/1.1_final.html Internet accessed 29 December 2007.

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