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Accents: Bilingual Education - Part 1

Wednesday, December 4, 2002 at 1:42 PM

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Here in Northeast Ohio, our history is one of new arrivals from all corners of the world speaking many languages. No matter how diverse the native backgrounds of immigrants, all share a common challenge - making their way in an English-speaking culture. Many first generation immigrants don't learn English, although that's probably less true today than in the past. But it falls to Ohio's public schools to make sure their kids do. As part of our series Accents, we take a two-part look at how we educate those with limited English skills. Today, 90.3's Bill Rice takes us to a western suburb for a firsthand peek at bilingual education in action.

Bill Rice: Whether or not you consider English the “official” language of the United States, it’s hard to knock value of fluent English as a crucial tool for success. Several of these Lorain first-graders are getting their first crack at the language. Spanish is spoken in their homes; their families are likely Puerto Rican or Mexican, drawn to the United States by Hispanic friends or family members who settled here previously to work in the steel mill.

Pablo Biggio: US Steel at that time it was called.

BR: Pablo Biggio is 53. Puerto Rican-born, he’s lived in Lorain nearly all of his life.

PB: At that time they went out and recruited Hispanics. So they just celebrated their 50th anniversary a few years ago, the first came in 1947. So they recruited them, I think a total of 500, they went to Puerto Rico and brought them out here to work the mills and that’s how this community started.

BR: Back then there was no great push to teach the immigrants English. Housed in barracks in the southern part of the city, Hispanic workers and their families communicated amongst themselves in Spanish, and English wasn’t crucial to the hard, labor-intensive mill work. Today it’s a much different story. Biggio, who manages the bilingual program at Lorain City Schools, says Hispanics who have been here for decades have absorbed the language. Indeed, he says, many of them don’t speak Spanish at all.

PB: They’ve already lost it because they’ve been here so long their parents stopped speaking it. So they lost it. If you went to Southview close to eighty percent of those students wouldn’t speak Spanish.

BR: Biggio says about 25% of Lorain’s ten thousand students are of Hispanic backgrounds. His focus is the fewer than ten percent of those who are new to American life - and American schools.

The kids in Maria Sanchez’s first grade class aren’t all non-English speakers. The Lorain school district has a long-established English program geared mainly for Hispanics, but it can handle other nationalities as well. Here at Masson Elementary School they mix and match kids of various levels of English proficiency. Sanchez likes this technique.

Maria Sanchez: What’s happening is we’re bringing in more of the ESL kids to mesh with these children so they can have role models.

BR: ESL stands for English as a Second Language. It’s just one part of Lorain’s program. Kids in this category have some English skills, and most of their instruction is in English. Those in the bilingual program are less advanced, and they still get much of their instruction in Spanish. But Sanchez says nothing beats exposure for teaching a new language, and that’s what this class provides.

MS: The children listen to how things are pronounced, they try to emulate and repeat that. They can hear English being spoken, they can hear some of the thought process some of the other children go through.

BR: These kids are at an age where learning a foreign language comes naturally, Sanchez says. They soak it up like sponges. For older kids, progress can be slower.

Gamayelle Figaroa has been in the United States for scarcely a month, and speaks no English. He’s a shy tenth-grader, says bilingual tutor Jose Del Valle. The pressure of fitting into new surroundings is tough enough, Del Valle says; not speaking any English makes it even tougher.

Jose Del Valle: He’s constantly looking around to see if someone’s looking at him. And that’s a barrier that we have to, from first year to second year students, they feel uncomfortable and they feel embarrassed sometimes, they look around and they see is anyone paying attention to me. And that’s what Gamayelle’s always telling me is “I’m afraid to do that. I tell him you have to pretend that there’s nobody else around, that you’re the only one there. And little by little he’s learning that.

BR: But Gamayelle’s late start learning English puts him at a distinct disadvantage. Conventional wisdom is that it takes five to seven years to become fluent in English. Limited English-proficient students here are mainstreamed after two years, but the younger ones still have the benefit of additional years in school, and tutoring help during that time. Not so, says Del Valle, for older students.

JDV: Students who come in their junior year have just two years to pass all five proficiency tests and pass their courses in the same amount of time as everyone else. Well, some of them don’t make it and some do. And that’s our job is to help them function as best they can and learn as quickly as they can. And sometimes that’s easy and sometimes it’s hard, it depends on the background of the student.

BR: With such a large Hispanic population, Lorain schools count on a steady flow of Spanish speakers, and structure their English program to suit that. But the ethnic makeup of student populations vary from district to district. Some may have children of several nationalities, in either large or small numbers. Some may have only one non-English speaker. Whatever the case, school districts are required by law to teach them English, and so must tailor their programs according to their particular circumstances. In Lorain, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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