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Muchas Gracias, Mr. Doluisio

Wednesday, May 1, 1996

School superintendent Thomas J. Doluisio was puzzled. His Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, district had an elaborate program of Spanish-language classes for its large population of Spanish-speaking children. Proponents of bilingual education said this would help Hispanic children adjust when they moved on to English-only classes -- which they were supposed to do after three years. But it wasn't working. Hispanic students lagged behind their peers in test scores, reading levels, and graduation rates.

          "Our college-track courses were lily-white," Doluisio says. "Our remedial classes were filled with Puerto Rican kids. And the ability to speak English explained most of the difference."

          What went wrong?

          Doluisio found out in a 1992 meeting with his district's elementary-school principals. The short answer: seven years. That's how long it was taking a typical student in the bilingual program to move into regular classes taught in English. Bethlehem had effectively established an English-second policy, thanks to educators who considered native-language training of primary importance.

          "I was flabbergasted," Doluisio says. More than that, he was angry. And then he got busy.

          Within a year, Doluisio led a stunning transformation of Bethlehem's language policy. His district became one of a handful in the country to reverse course on bilingual education. Today, Bethlehem's Spanish-speaking students are immersed in English-speaking classrooms, where they hear almost nothing but English. The school district switched policies only after a bitter struggle had divided the community along racial and ethnic lines. But thanks to Doluisio's leadership, the benefits of English immersion are starting to show, and the naysayers are starting to change their minds. Today, Bethlehem provides a stirring example of how other school districts can challenge the bilingual-education orthodoxy -- and win.

          Since 1968, the federal government has spent nearly $4 billion on bilingual education. In 1995 alone, it spent $206 million. (President Clinton wanted to increase the annual appropriation to $300 million, but was halted by the budget crunch and House Republicans.) But federal money has been less important than federal power to the consolidation of bilingual education. During the 1970s and 1980s, bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Education coerced hundreds of school districts around the country into adopting native-language instruction for their non-English-speaking students. They based their tactics on a 1974 Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right for non-English-speaking children to receive some sort of special language assistance.

          The Court did not prescribe a particular pedagogical approach, but its federal enforcers did. Through a confusing array of regulations, court orders, and consent decrees, they insisted that school districts provide a curriculum with a heavy emphasis on the students' native tongues. In this political climate, Bethlehem's program was born.

          The Bethlehem Area School District, serving 13,000 children, is Pennsylvania's fifth-largest. About 10 percent of its students cannot speak English well, and of these, 86 percent speak Spanish in their homes. Most of these children are Puerto Rican, but immigrants from Central and South America make up a growing part of the Spanish-speaking population.

          Before the 1993-94 school year, Bethlehem was fully committed to bilingual education and its goal of teaching students in their native language before they moved into regular classrooms. English-speakers and immigrant children who didn't speak Spanish attended their neighborhood schools. But the school district essentially segregated its Spanish-speaking students, busing them to two elementary schools. There was little time for English at these segregated schools. Spanish was the language of the classroom, the lunchroom, and the playground.

          Most bilingual educators say that native-language instruction is the surest road to English fluency, since it makes for an easier transition. But Doluisio believes this defies common sense. "You can't teach kids how to swim by giving them a lecture at the side of the pool," he says. "They've got to get wet, and maybe even take in a little bit of water. Our job as educators is to keep them afloat, to make sure they don't go under."

          After learning about bilingual education's dismal exit rates in Bethlehem, Doluisio began to investigate the program more intently. He quickly uncovered more outrages. "There were kindergartners -- five-year-olds who were at the perfect age to start learning a new language -- who did not hear a single word of English all day long," says Doluisio. "I probably should have known that this sort of thing was going on, but nobody told me. I had to discover it for myself."

          The more he learned, the less he liked. "I really believe in my heart that we were hurting these kids," he says. "I started to see a connection between bilingual education and Latino dropout rates. Not a total connection, to be sure. But definitely a connection."

          As soon as Doluisio decided that bilingual education was a problem, he set out to find a solution. He asked the district's bilingual-education director to assemble a committee to study the issue. But the majority of its members were advocates of the status quo. When it reported back to the school board in the fall of 1992, the committee said that the bilingual program was healthy and even suggested expanding it. Doluisio flew into a rage. "For the first time in my career, I rejected a report that had come out of my own administration," he says.

         The superintendent launched a personal crusade against complacency. He studied the literature on bilingual education carefully. "I soon learned that in this field you can find research to back up just about any political point you want to make," he says, "especially if you support bilingual education." But some of the scholarship raised significant doubts.

          Rosalie Pedalino Porter's scathing expose, Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education (1990), particularly influenced him. In this book, Porter draws upon her 15 years of experience as a bilingual-education teacher and administrator in Massachusetts. "I came to feel that I was going about things the wrong way around, as if I were deliberately holding back the learning of English," she writes. Porter is a strong proponent of "time on task," the idea that the amount of time spent learning something is the best predictor of educational achievement. In other words, students must practice English constantly if they are to learn it well. "Nothing in my 15 years in this field -- from first-hand classroom experience to concentrated research -- has begun to convince me that delaying instruction in English for several years will lead to better learning of English and to a greater ability to study subject matter taught in English," writes Porter, who now heads the READ Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts.

          Doluisio examined this and other research, and decided that Bethlehem's language policy needed a complete overhaul. He convinced the school board to schedule a series of public meetings devoted to bilingual education -- and to discuss its possible repeal. Community interest was so great that the board had to hold its gatherings in the Liberty High School auditorium, the district's largest.

          The issue immediately split along ethnic lines. Many Latino parents felt that the removal of bilingual education would jeopardize their children's education. Some of Doluisio's supporters undercut him when they stepped up to the microphone and made derogatory comments about Puerto Ricans. "These meetings were very heated," Doluisio recalls. "They were very emotional. I had to have cops in the back of the room to make sure that there was no trouble." At one point, a group of Latino activists physically surrounded the school board and, led by a priest from out of town, engaged in a prayer to save Bethlehem's bilingual-education program.

          The Pennsylvania Department of Education also frowned on Doluisio's efforts. Myrna Delgado, the state's bilingual-education coordinator, urged the school board to vote against the superintendent.

          The rancor of the hearings weighed heavily on Doluisio, especially the ugly way in which race and ethnicity intruded. It appeared that all the Latinos were on one side, all the Anglos on the other. "This was an extremely unpleasant time for me, and for everybody," says Doluisio.

          About midway through the controversy, however, a group of sympathetic Hispanic parents contacted him. They were professionals, led by Luis A. Ramos of Pennsylvania Power and Light. "We hoped to make it clear that Latinos want their children to learn English, and that the superintendent was heading in the right direction," says Ramos, whose two children have attended Bethlehem schools. "Their support really gave me the courage to forge ahead," says Doluisio.

          In February 1993, the school board voted to abolish bilingual education and adopt a district-wide plan for English immersion. The board clearly stated its goal that "all language-minority students in the district become fluent in the English language in the shortest amount of time possible to maximize their opportunity to succeed in school." All students, including Spanish-speaking children, would attend neighborhood schools, and students who required special help would receive instruction in English as a Second Language (ESL) several times a week. Spanish-speaking kids would spend the bulk of their time in regular classrooms listening to teachers who, in most cases, spoke virtually no Spanish. "It was our belief that if the Chinese and Russian kids could do well in a regular classroom without bilingual education, then so could the Spanish-speakers," says Rebecca Bartholomew, the principal of Lincoln Elementary.

          Lincoln was one of several schools that suddenly had to confront a sizable population of students who did not speak English very well. The school board insisted that the immersion program be in place by the following September, leaving just seven months to implement a completely new plan for teaching children with limited English skills. The move upset bilingual teachers, who believed wholeheartedly in the theory of native-language maintenance.

          But immersion met with resistance from non-bilingual teachers as well. They were accustomed to dealing with children who would understand their most basic instructions. "In the first week of the new program, we had homeroom teachers who would tell their class to line up, and half the class wouldn't understand," says Ann Goldberg, who runs the immersion program for Bethlehem. "It was really tough going at first."

          "A lot of regular classroom teachers felt really incompetent, since the switch to immersion was so rapid and so complete," said Carole Schachter, an ESL teacher who had previously taught in the bilingual program. "They could barely communicate with many of their students," she said. A number of teachers remain critical of the switch and of Doluisio, but they prefer anonymity. The school district will publish its first academic evaluation of the program this summer, and the results are sure to be watched closely by educators both inside and outside of Bethlehem.

          Hispanic parents are gradually beginning to approve of the new policy. One who likes the switch to English immersion is Margarita Rivas. A native of Puerto Rico, she was concerned at first that her four children would not succeed in school if they did not hear much Spanish. But then she changed her mind. "It's very important that they know how to speak English well in this country," she says. "Now they speak English better than Spanish, and they are helping me and my husband improve our English."

          After the immersion program had been in place for one year, Bethlehem surveyed the parents of its Spanish-speaking students. The forms went out in two languages, since many of the parents speak no English. The results were remarkably positive. Eighty-one percent of the respondents said that their children had "progressed well academically" in the English-immersion setting. Only 7 percent said that they "did not make progress." Another 82 percent rated the new program as "good" or "very good," 12 percent called it "adequate" or "satisfactory," and only 1 percent deemed it "poor."

          The approval ratings appear to remain high today. "My daughter is getting a good education here," Sayda Castaneda, an immigrant from Honduras, says through a translator. "I don't want my daughter to forget her first language, but English is spoken in the United States."

          The teachers have started to come around as well. "I was against immersion in the beginning, but I'm not nearly as critical now," says Jean Walker, a 4th-grade teacher who has taught in Bethlehem schools for 24 years. "I didn't think I'd be able to communicate, but these kids learned English faster than I thought they would. I like immersion now. It's not perfect, but I like it," she says. A survey shows that Walker is not alone -- 62 percent of Bethlehem teachers say that students were making "substantial progress" in learning English after being in the program for one year. Only 13 percent said students made "little" or "no" progress.

          Rita Hatton, a Cuban-born teacher with 20 years' experience in Bethlehem, still has some reservations about immersion. A veteran of the bilingual program and now an ESL teacher at Freemansburg Elementary, she worries that her children will lose their Spanish fluency. But she also sees rapid gains among her students learning English. "At the start of the school year, some of them only spoke two or three words of English," she says. "Now they can speak it, read it, and write it pretty well." In fact, English is by far the predominant language in her classroom. Donna West, an ESL teacher, came to Bethlehem after it adopted the immersion program, but she had taught previously for six years in a Brownsville, Texas, bilingual program. "I like the immersion model much better," she says. "In Brownsville, the kids simply weren't becoming proficient in English. They started a lot of kids in Spanish, but they need English when they're young."

          Doluisio was officially condemned at the 1994 convention of the National Association for Bilingual Education. His detractors accuse him of being driven by politics, even of riding a tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. He says his goal is to help immigrants succeed by raising expectations for their performance. "For years we expected our Latino kids to learn differently. We didn't think they could cut it in mainstream classes with the native English speakers or the kids from Asia or Poland," says Doluisio. "The results were like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Today we're saying that Latino kids are just as capable as any other group of students."