Bilingual programs fill language gap in Miami schools

By DEBORA RUBI
School of Communication
University of Miami

With the release of “Waiting for Superman,” a film providing a scathing criticism of the United States’ education system, a new critical eye is being turned against the institutions providing the education for children across the country.

The film follows five children, portraying the cracks in the system that hold back many of the students. The film focuses on the racial and socio-economic inequalities that are found in schools around the United States.

The problems are exacerbated in racially and economically diverse areas like Miami-Dade County. According to the U.S. Department of Education Choice Report of 2004, only 10 percent of its students are non-Hispanic whites.

Miami-Dade has done much to try and counter the gaps that are created trough racial and socioeconomic segregation in the system.

The “I Choose” program allows students to choose to attend a charter or magnet school to help alleviate some of the racial segregation found in the county. Only a select amount of students, however, can join these schools. As of 2004, the 31 magnet schools only enrolled 12,000 students out of the 370,000 students enrolled in Miami-Dade Public Schools.

In Florida, the problem is exacerbated by the many immigrants (predominantly Haitian and Hispanic) that do not speak English as their native language — therefore coming into the system already at a disadvantage.

Bilingual Education

Bilingual education programs, through the English Language Learner system, are prevalent throughout the country. Florida, Arizona and New York require all teachers to get English Language Learner certification.

“The goal of the bilingual program is to prepare the students for success by helping their transition,” said Mary Avalos, an assistant research professor at the University of Miami with a doctorate in curriculum and teaching in TESOL and reading. “Some keep as a goal maintaining the natural language to create a truly bilingual student, or helping to teach a second language to English speakers.”

Under Florida law, all schools must provide ELL programs for students who do not speak English fluently.

“All Florida students that are registered will be assessed,” said Rosy Ugalde, executive director of bilingual education in Miami-Dade. “If they are found to be in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) category they will be registered in that instructional model unless the parents decide otherwise.”

Ugalde says that almost 99 percent of parents that have their children test within the ESOL category agree to have their children enrolled in the program.

“It’s the parent’s choice,” said Ugalde. “We can’t force them, but few are willing to deny their kids assistance.”

Which programs are most successful?

According to a 2007 report by the National Center of Educational Statistics branch of the U.S. Department of Education, the last report on ELL scores, 38 percent of fourth graders and 40 percent of eighth graders in ELL programs test at the average, or above average, level.

California, which restricts native language instruction and does not require or provide incentives for ELL certification, tested at 26 percent for both fourth graders and eighth graders.

“Since the law was instated to restrict native language instruction,” said Avalos, “the tests scores have not improved.”

Arizona had only 16 percent of fourth graders at average, or above average, testing and 22 percent of eighth graders at average, or above average, testing.

Bilingual education that includes instruction in the native language has been encouraged by many studies.

“There is no best, prescribed way to learn,” said Avalos. “But bilingual programs are more beneficial for literacy and language development beyond the extended foreign language and native language instruction.”

Florida has had to improve its ELL programs to integrate the large Hispanic and Haitian population found in the southern part of the state. According to the 2008 United States Census reports, more than one-fifth of Florida’s population is Hispanic.

“There needs to be an early intervention beyond preschool in the student’s vocabulary to ensure school success or they will never catch up,” said Avalos.

The numbers become more drastic as one centers in on Miami-Dade, where according to the Education Choice Report of 2004, 58 percent of students are Hispanic. Thirty percent are African American, many of which are Haitians who speak Creole as their first language.

“The problem is not only for immigrants,” said Avalos. “Studies in the Midwest showed African Americans with different dialects also falling behind in the language gap.”

Many of the immigrants in Florida are people born in the country with immigrant parents that do not speak English fluently.

“It’s sad because they don’t know how the language develops,” said Avalos. “They’re known as generation 1.5, where they end up not being proficient in either language.”

Bilingual education is important in anchoring students to the system and helping them progress as they adapt to the language and education system of the United States.

The problems are not entirely in the lack of resources in the poorer districts, with funds coming from education grants or money allocated through to the No Child Left Behind Program through Title III.

“Teachers can overcome the [poverty] gap,” said Avalos. “They can teach about poverty and what works and not settle on one approach. In these situations it’s important to use the community and parents.”

The faults of the national system are clear as 20 percent of people born out of the country drop out of high school, according to a 2007 report in the National Center for Education Statistics.

“California has had a higher dropout rate,” said Avalos. “Students don’t feel connected to the schools. They feel that the teachers do not care. “

Leaving the Programs

The importance of the program is not simply bringing the kids into the program and providing support as they adapt but in leading the way for students to eventually progress into mainstream education programs.

“Students will regularly progress from year to year and even skip years, with most students exiting the program after three years,” said Ugalde.

The students are regularly tested through the CELLA and FCAT tests to see if they have reached the benchmarks to exit the program. The CELLA (Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment) is used to assess the language proficiency of the students.

Students can turn in requests for extensions. However, there is always the fear that students and parents trying to abuse the program could extend their stay in the program to secure higher grades rather than out of true need for instruction.

“If an extension is needed there will be further evaluation to see what exactly is happening with the student to keep him from progressing,” said Ugalde.

Students out of the program are regularly monitored to make sure progress is being made within the general student population.

“Once exiting the program there is a two-year monitoring of the student’s GPA and performance to make sure they are succeeding,” said Avalos.

While the system is flawed, Florida has been at the forefront of helping non-native speakers adapt to a new system of education through bilingual education.

This is far from a panacea for the educational woes in Florida and the country, but it is an important move in securing everyone in the community gets a fair share of the education pie.

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