Irving dilemma: English immersion or both languages at once?
Dallas Morning News
March 18, 2007


IRVING – In a school district with the region's highest percentage of children with limited English skills, a rift has emerged over the best way to educate them.
Last fall, Irving school board president Randy Stipes proposed a pilot program in English immersion. But his idea – pitched at a board meeting – was quickly shot down. Superintendent Jack Singley told him it was against the law. The state requires bilingual education.
That seemed to be the end of it. Then word of the exchange reached state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving. She filed a bill this legislative session that would give school districts the option to offer English immersion or ESL programs for students learning the language.
"I'm trying to make something happen that the superintendent was unsure could happen," Ms. Harper-Brown said.
When she asked Mr. Singley for his support in a letter, he wrote back that she shouldn't propose the change on his behalf or the school district's unless the trustees requested it.
"I told her I know of no research of immersion working, but if she has some research to please share it," he said. "I never got a response."
Mr. Singley said he takes no position on immersion but noted that bilingual classes succeed if a child enters the system early.
Mr. Stipes said he didn't know about Ms. Harper-Brown's bill, "but I'm glad she did it."
Since 1973, Texas has required bilingual education whenever 20 or more children in a grade share another language. While bilingual programs instruct children partly in their language and partly in English so they can understand the content, immersion programs use only English.
The tensions in Irving illustrate the ongoing controversy over bilingual education, despite its long-standing use in the state. The state's population of students with limited English skills continues to grow rapidly. They made up nearly 16 percent of students last year.
This legislative session, Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, has also filed a bill that would do away with requiring bilingual education. On the other side, Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, filed a bill supporting more scholarships for bilingual teachers in training, and Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, sponsored a bill promoting the growth of dual-language programs.
But perhaps no school district in North Texas faces the issue to the degree of Irving, where 36 percent of children are classified as limited English proficient – a higher percentage than even Dallas public schools. Most of these students are Hispanic.
The district, under pressure to improve lagging test scores and slow the high dropout rate, is in search of remedies.
"It's just another option ... to reach some kids we aren't reaching now to keep them from falling behind or dropping out," Mr. Stipes said of English immersion. "What works for one student might not work for another."
Results in California
Ms. Harper-Brown simply points to successes in California. Since voters eliminated bilingual education in 1998, children spend a year in structured English classes before being mainstreamed. Test scores for English-learning children have since increased, although all scores have risen.
"California has shown that the test scores are getting better for those students who go into total immersion," Ms. Harper-Brown said. "I think this is a first step to see if it works in Texas."
But a five-year study commissioned by the California Legislature found no conclusive evidence that English immersion is more effective than bilingual education or vice versa.
The report, released in February 2006, found that the performance gap between English language learners and native speakers remained constant. Student performance depended on the quality of instruction, not the language of instruction, it stated.
Irving primarily uses the transitional model for bilingual education, in which younger children learn mostly in Spanish and then use more English as they progress into the upper grades.
"They do learn English," Irving's bilingual director Dora Morón said. "But they're also learning the content so they don't fall behind."
But a growing number of Texas school districts are moving toward dual-language education, in which children learn for half the day in English and half in Spanish. The goal is to develop literacy in both languages. The Dallas school district switched its program last fall. Irving has a pilot dual-language program.
"We try to read as much as we can about the programs in California," Carrollton-Farmers Branch Superintendent Annette Griffin said. "But research right now shows our best efforts need to be in two-way dual language."
Texas has never seen a significant challenge to its bilingual education program. The chairman of the House's Public Education Committee, Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said there doesn't seem to be much support for a major change, but he could see a pilot English immersion program.
State Rep. Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton, said he supports the English immersion bill but acknowledged it might not get very far. "I'd like to see it tried at least in a pilot case," he said.
But Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, noted that parents already have the right to opt out of bilingual education and put their children in regular classes.
"That decision should be made by parents," he said.
Some Hispanics see the bill as part of the rising sentiment against illegal immigrants among some conservative legislators who have also proposed denying birthright citizenship and want to withhold social services for illegal immigrants.
"We don't expect them to be taken too seriously," said Luis Figueroa, a legislative staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Conservative allies
Ms. Harper-Brown is allied with some of the most conservative Republicans in the state. She served as immigration chair of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute.
In a speech available online that she gave last year, she spoke of illegal immigrant children being a drain on the education system and said that the 1982 Supreme Court decision giving illegal immigrant children the right to public education should be reconsidered.
"Our children must either share their schools with scores of illegal aliens – most not English-speaking – or parents must take on the double burden of sending their children to private school," she said in the speech.
Though Mr. Figueroa opposes the English immersion bill, he conceded that there are problems with the current bilingual system. MALDEF is awaiting a ruling on a lawsuit that alleges that the state has failed to monitor the quality of bilingual programs and that students are failing the TAKS at unacceptably high rates as a result.
Critics of the system also point out that some children still aren't proficient in English by the time they advance to middle school.
Nationally, children who learn English fail standardized tests at much higher rates than native speakers. In Irving, although the district passing rate for fifth-graders taking the reading TAKS test in English was 72 percent, for limited English proficient children it was 52 percent. Statewide, 81 percent of fifth-graders passed reading in English, and 48 percent of limited English proficient children passed.
There's also a severe shortage of qualified bilingual teachers. According to the Texas Education Agency, 167 school districts asked to offer ESL instead of bilingual education in certain classes because they couldn't find teachers.
Diana Shaw teaches second-graders at John R. Good Elementary in Irving. Most of her students are children of immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras who often lack formal education.
So the children are learning to read in their native language only at school. Bilingual theory says that if children become literate in their first language, they will have an easier time learning the second.
Ms. Shaw, who is Hispanic, attended parochial school in South Texas, where she wasn't allowed to speak any Spanish.
"Do we really want to put that fear in children?" she asked. "It doesn't have to be so harsh."