As the number of Hispanic students in Connecticut's schools continues to rise, the achievement gap between these students and their white classmates remains. Gaps can be found in every grade, in every subject, in just about every school district in the state. The highest percentage of English language learners can be found in the town of Windham. In the past year, there have been big changes there to the way Hispanic students are being taught.
Teacher Fatima Pierson leads an ESOL, or English to Speakers of Other Languages, class at Windham High School. "These are the newcomers," she said. "They have just arrived within the last five to six months, so they speak no English. We start from very, very basics, from alphabet, to days of the week, to months of the year."
"Mi nombre es Jessica Jeannette Martinez," said Jessica Jeannette Martinez, 16, who had to leave her mother in Mexico so she could move with her dad to Windham, where her family wanted her to finish high school. She’s among the town’s 750 or so English language learners, more than one of every four students.
After this class, Jessica begins a full day of high school academics in English. She admitted that right now, other than one ESOL class a day, and math, where she’s able to recognize the numbers, she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on most of the time. Windham High has tutors to help translate, but they’re not always available. "Pido ayuda a otros companeros que hablan espanol and ellos me ayudan," Martinez said. She asks for help from her classmates who speak Spanish, and they explain.
A few years ago, newcomers to Windham would be placed in bilingual education, and transition over time into mainstream classes. The philosophy behind bilingual education is to teach kids using a mixture of English and their native language, so they can keep up with subject matter as they gradually master English. But that changed about a year ago, after Dr. Steven Adamowski was named Special Master for Windham’s schools.
In an effort to improve lagging test scores and move kids more quickly into mainstream classes, Adamowski took a different approach, ending bilingual education and moving to English-only. He allowed certain support programs for non-native speakers to continue, but essentially dismantled bilingual education throughout the district. Multiple requests by WNPR for an interview with Adamowski were unsuccessful.
Rose Reyes, who used to teach a second-grade bilingual education class in Windham, now provides Spanish support to kindergarten, first, and second graders. She worries that too many of these children are being tracked into special education. "When there’s so much English going on for a kindergartener," she said, "there are two responses. Children either implode or explode. The children who are exploding, acting out, are now flagged as problematic, and then more support services or interventions are provided. However, the condition is that the interventions and services are in English."
The debate over how best to educate non-native speakers has gone on for a long time. Linguist Stephen Krashen is an emeritus professor of education at the University of Southern California who has studied how people acquire language. He believes 35 years of research boil down to one sentence. "We acquire language," he said, "and we develop literacy when we understand messages, when we understand what people tell us and we understand what we read." He said a good bilingual education is usually better than English-only.
Why, then, do some people succeed without it? Krashen addressed that question in a recent article published in the International Multilingual Research Journal. He used as an example: former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who often told Hispanic immigrants to follow his example. "You've got to turn off the Spanish television set," Schwarzenegger said. "It's that simple. You've got to learn English."
On closer examination, Krashen found that Schwarzenegger had critical advantages that many less-educated immigrant families do not have. First and foremost, he had literacy in his native language. He also had enough background knowledge to understand what was going on around him.
Krashen said, "If you are educated in the first language, it makes the world more comprehensible. Governor Schwarzenegger was a high school graduate. He had been educated in Austria in German, so he had a pretty good basic education. He had also had seven years of English as a foreign language instruction. As soon as he got here, he took ESL classes at Santa Monica Community College, which also helped him enormously." Krashen described Schwarzenegger’s experience as "de facto" bilingual education, having the advantages and support needed to learn a new language.
Back in Windham, concern over declining test scores has led the local board of education to approve a new arrivals program at the high school. Beginning next week, classes will be co-taught by two teachers, one of whom is proficient in Spanish.
That’s good news for students like Jessica Martinez, who said she’s determined to achieve her dreams. She said, "Terminar mi high school, entrar en la Universidad, tener una carrera en economia, tal vez contabilidad y tener su...un permiso para traer a mi mama y comprarle su casa aca." She wants to finish high school, go to college, and have a career as an economist or accountant. Then she'd like to get permission to bring her mother from Mexico, and buy her a home in Windham.