Tongue Tied

Bilingual education spreads to Boise


When Rudy Pena, a school counselor in American Falls, asked a group of teachers gathered recently at Boise State why Latino kids drop out of school, he got some very stereotypical answers: Their parents let them; drug culture; poverty; they don't do well in core subject areas.

Just upstairs from Pena's session at the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs education summit, another group of teachers—students in Boise State's bilingual/English as a second language department—had been meeting all week.

These students were learning to see the school system from a different perspective, one that gives the kids more credit and assumes they might have knowledge of their own to impart.

Many of these young teachers have begun to see America's school system as an increasingly racist widget factory that culls out minority students—largely Hispanic students, but also the poor and alternative students—pushing them to even more marginalized positions in society.

"Here we have a school system that's being supported and teachers being paid for generating a guaranteed failure. And the society, every year, votes on the budget to generate even more and more failure," said Donaldo Macedo, a linguist from the University of Massachusetts in Boston who taught the summer seminar for Boise State's bilingual education program.

Macedo is an acolyte of the late Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a 1968 call for a more democratic form of education in the Third World and in nations emerging from colonialism. For Macedo and the professors at Boise State, this call is just as relevant in Idaho classrooms today, in which education companies, state standards and tests dictate how and what kids learn.

"Somebody else has decided what you do in the classrooms," said Claudia Peralta-Nash, chair of the department for the past five years.

The rise of school standards and high-stakes testing in the wake of the federal No Child Left Behind Act has turned children into monkeys or lab rats, said Peralta-Nash, who is moving to Chico, Calif., after five years in Boise. Her students are interested in molding kids who think for themselves and question the system.

But some teachers who graduate from the department have had a hard time finding jobs, and when they do, they often find themselves at odds with principals and with an earlier generation of teachers, Peralta-Nash said.

Not so for Jennifer Biery, assistant principal at Reed Elementary School in Kuna and a 2003 Boise State graduate. Several bilingual education graduates and student-teachers from the Boise State department now work at Reed, which is preparing for its second year of bilingual education.

Peralta-Nash and her teachers have been key advisers in the formation of Kuna's dual-language kindergarten and now first grade classrooms.

"These students and teachers ... are coming out with the right to their opinion and the right to question, and know they have specialty information as to what's best for this population," Biery said.

While some of the ideas floating around the university are radical, Biery said, once they get into the classroom, teachers figure out what works.

"As a student coming out of that, you have to learn from your professors, but you also have to adjust," she said. "When you're in the real world, you have to adjust and make it work for you."

Next year Boise will adopt a similar type of bilingual education—dual language instruction, in which part of the class is taught in Spanish and part in English. In Kuna, the dual language classrooms are 80 percent Spanish and 20 percent English. An English-speaking teacher comes in once a week to teach. Two Kuna teachers—both Boise State grads—passionately debated whether to teach an 80/20 or 90/10 language mix.

Boise is opting for a 50/50 dual-language classroom in which English and Spanish get equal time.

"They're learning language through the content as opposed to learning language as the content," said Ann Farris, director of federal programs for Boise schools. "With the dual language, the ultimate goal is bilingualism and bi-literacy in both languages."

In both districts, the bilingual classrooms are made up of half native English and half native Spanish speakers whose parents choose to send them to the program. Boise has filled three of four bilingual kindergartens for the fall at Whitney and Whittier elementary schools, and is still taking kids for one afternoon session.

Kuna's first year of bilingual education was a success, based on both test results and the more telling energy in the classroom.

"When I went in there the first of the year, and then I walk in there the end of the year, it was awesome to see your little native English speakers speaking Spanish," Biery said.

While fluency in two languages has clear benefits for success in business and other academic realms, and parents are increasingly opting for such classes, it is also bound to butt up against the dominant educational model sweeping the nation.

"The equation of someone's linguistic authority with intellectual capacity is a form of violence, is a form of denial of human rights and we do that all the time with high-stakes testing," said Macedo. "Bilingual education reinforces democracy in that it allows you to exercise your right to be who you are, and you are your language."

Bilingual education was once conceived as a civil right, as the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 followed on the heels of the Civil Rights Act. In the 1970s, Chinese students in San Francisco sued the schools, and the U.S. Supreme Court ordered greater access to Chinese-speaking teachers. This case led to federal and state laws expanding English as a second language programs, with a growing emphasis on weaning students from learning in their native tongue.

Ten years ago, riding a wave of anti-immigrant ballot measures, California voters banned bilingual education, allowing only brief periods of instruction in a language other than English and forcing non-English speaking students into "mainstream" classrooms.

Arizona and Massachusetts followed suit and Oregon voters will face a similar ballot measure in November.

Add to the mix the No Child Left Behind Act, which focuses much needed attention on non-English-speaking students but puts enormous pressure on schools to conform to rigid annual benchmarks, leaving little room for democratic education.

For Macedo, both students and teachers need to be free to express their ideas in the classroom, whether they speak English, French or Spanish, through art or some other means.

He asks what would happen if China were to take over the United States and forbid journalists from writing in English: "I tongue tie you if I tell you to stop writing in English."