Austin school district dual language proposal raises concerns for some
District officials say goal has changed from producing graduates who are bilingual to graduating students who are biliterate.
By Laura Heinauer
Updated: 11:41 a.m. Friday, Feb. 12, 2010
Published: 9:44 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010
Proposed reforms to the Austin school district's bilingual education program have threatened what some say is a tenuous relationship between new Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and some members of Austin's Hispanic community.
By moving from a transitional bilingual education model — where students still learning English get an increasingly limited amount of instruction in their native tongues — to what's called a dual language approach — where students are taught in two languages through high school — district officials say their goal has changed from producing graduates who are bilingual to graduating students who are biliterate.
"It's really an incredible opportunity to really lift the overall performance of both English language learners and native English speakers," said Carstarphen, who can speak Spanish and has used it in speeches.
The dual language program, to be tested with Spanish at seven schools starting in the fall, would benefit English-language learners as well as English-speaking students whose parents want them to learn a second language, she said. Research shows "it actually improves the cognitive function of the brain. We know it serves both populations well."
Dual language programs are popular across the country, especially in Texas and California. Austin is one of the few large districts in Texas without it. Critics, however, say they fear the district's program won't go far enough in helping English-language learners.
Unless 90 percent of lessons are taught in Spanish, Carstarphen's dual language proposal might dismantle some of the strongest aspects of the current bilingual education program, said Cynthia Valadez, a member of MADRES, which stands for Mothers Against Discrimination and Racism in Education and Society.
"She is effectively eliminating a strong and successful program and implementing in its place a model that sets up our English-language learners for failure," Valadez said. She said she supports dual language but doesn't trust district leaders understand Hispanics well enough to do it right.
Perez, Wooten, Ridgetop and Becker elementary schools will test the program with kindergartners and first graders starting in 2010-11; three as yet undetermined campuses will host dual language instruction for English-language learners only. Carstarphen said the plan is to transition from the current bilingual model of instruction for students in kindergarten through fifth grade by 2017-18 districtwide.
"My goal is to have all our students fluent both in the academic application and communication of two languages," she said.
How to get there, however, is causing a dispute.
Research shows Spanish-speaking English learners do better academically when taught in Spanish 90 percent of the time in the early grades and when Spanish is also used through high school. About 29 percent of Austin's 83,033 students in 2008-09 weren't fluent in English, state data show, up from 14 percent in 1998-99. Just 50 percent of the district's English learners passed state achievement tests in 2009, compared with 70 percent of students districtwide.
District officials and their consultants at the University of Texas and the Dual Language Training Institute, which has helped set up 50 percent English and 50 percent Spanish dual language models in the past, have not determined how much instruction in Spanish will be given in Austin.
Researchers have noted that though the 90-10 models may be more popular with Spanish speaking families, English-speaking parents tend to get nervous that their children could fall behind their peers in traditional schools.
"Either allocation model — whether it's 90-10 or 50-50 — brings its own set of challenges and opportunities," Carstarphen said. "I'm not interested in doing a model for a model's sake, because it sounds like the right thing to do or it happened somewhere else.... Neither is perfect. So the smart thing for us to do is for us to sit down with the experts who can help us understand what is best for Austin."
In reforming district's bilingual program, Carstarphen is wading into a debate that often turns to talk of illegal immigration and whether districts should serve such students.
And then there's money. Three years ago, then-Superintendent Pat Forgione put off a plan to bring dual language to Austin, saying it cost too much.
Carstarphen estimates preparing and testing the program at seven schools will cost $700,000. Most of that, she said, will come out of federal stimulus money. Eventually, though, the district will share the cost of running the program with the state and federal government, as bilingual education is funded now.
The major challenge for Carstarphen, though , might be overcoming distrust. Before trustees chose a finalist to replace Forgione, several trustees received e-mails asking board members to consider naming someone who understood the Hispanic community given its large and growing population in Austin. Carstaphen was hired in July.
Since then, Valadez and others, including League of United Latin American Citizens District 7 Director Rita Gonzales-Garza, said they have been disturbed by instances they say show a lack of sensitivity on Carstarphen's part. As examples, they point to Carstarphen's use of terms such as limited English proficient to describe students. Though they concede the term is widely used by educators, they say it also conjures up resentment.
"I just don't sense the sincerity that she really wants to establish a relationship with the organizations that want to advocate for the students that don't have a real voice in the process," Gonzales-Garza said.
Valadez expressed concern that the district's top priority is filling underenrolled schools — of the four named in the pilot, Becker and Ridgetop are below capacity — using a model that has been popular elsewhere. "AISD will not be producing bilingual, biliterate students everywhere — only in yuppie neighborhoods where the parents understand what an advantage their children will have when they graduate," she said.
Trustee Sam Guzman, who represents parts of East and Southeast Austin, said though several in the Latino community are upset over the dual language proposal, others still have confidence in what the district is doing.
"I don't want there to be divisiveness, so if they do have concerns, we need to deal with it. The superintendent needs to deal with it," Guzman said .
Carstarphen said that the issue is difficult to address but that she's committed to making the transition.
"It's a conversation that's really hard for us around the country, but... Texas has its own unique history. And it's very hard for people — especially based on how old they are and what they experienced — to do it in a way that's respectful, meaningful and gets us to a better outcome for the children we serve today."
Transitional bilingual education
Teaches English-language learners in increasingly limited amounts in their native tongues, eventually transferring students to English-only instruction, sometimes into English as a Second Language programs, in which students are immersed in English and get extra help with grammar and expanding their vocabulary.
One-way dual language
Only for English-language learners. Lessons are in English and a student's native language, either a 50 percent English model or 10 percent English model.
Two-way dual language
Also for English speakers. Austin proposes a program in which students would receive lessons equally in English and Spanish or 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English.