Schools Push Pilor Program Offering Bilingual Education

Article excerpt

Last fall, St. Louis school officials said bilingual education was neither needed nor possible here. The foreign-born population was too small and too linguistically diverse.

Now, educators are scrambling to hire and train staffso that, by fall, students whose native languages are Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French or Arabic will learn basic subjects such as social studies and science in those languages.

The change reflects an increasing influx to the city. With the arrival of Mexican and Central American immigrants and refugees from Bosnia, Vietnam, Africa and the Caribbean, the St. Louis public school district has seen a near-doubling of the population in the past five years, up to at least 1,500.

"The district is trying hard to keep up with the increase while serving these students in a way that will benefit them most," said Nabila Salib, supervisor of language programs.

School officials here long shied away from bilingual education partly because they worried about it being a crutch and, ultimately, hampering students from becoming proficient in English.

The hope is that if students can study complicated topics in their own languages, they'll keep up in those classes while eventually learning English.

The area's ethnically heterogeneous population also made bilingual education seem impractical. Unlike Miami, for instance, with its dominatly Hispanic population, St. Louis lacks a concentration of one group.

Still, school officials say specific ethnic groups are becoming large enough to warrant bilingual education.

With the help of a federal grant, the district will set up for the 1996-97 school year pilot programs at Wyman Elementary, Fanning Middle and Roosevelt High schools, which have high foreign-student populations.

Under the bilingual program, any student can take classes in the foreign languages. "This will help students understand about different cultures," Salib said.

For the past decade, the district has relied on English as a Second Language programs, known as ESL, which some call the sink-or-swim approach: immersing students with little or no English skills in classrooms where only English is spoken so they can learn the language quickly.

It would be counterproductive to abandon ESL because it's "effective and necessary," Salib said. Students will learn reading and writing in ESL classes and survival English in hallways and on playgrounds.

In all, students speak 37 languages other than English, she said. Those who don't speak one of the five languages used in the bilingual program will continue with ESL.

Some big groups, such as Vietnamese and Bosnian youths, will not find courses in their languages, Salib said, in part because it is difficult to hire certified teachers. The five languages selected, she said, are similar to languages spoken by many students. For example, a Vietnamese student may receive instruction in Chinese, a Bosnian in Russian.

Efforts To Ease Transition

Historically, U.S. schools have favored the ESL method, says David E. Eskey, an education professor at the University of Southern California and director of its American Language Institute. "The idea is if you're in this country, speak English," he said. "And you do that by forcing yourself to function in English."

Ideally, Eskey said, bilingual education is meant to ease the transition into American culture and language by teaching students in their native languages, so they won't fall behind, while also instructing them in English. …