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
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
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
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. …