El Paso embraces English immersion for Spanish-speaking students
El Paso Times
Sept. 25, 2005

Kelly Torrance
Guest columnist

As Texas' Hispanic population surges, one city has stumbled upon a brilliantly simple solution to prevent immigrant students from falling through the cracks. Teach them to speak English by putting them in mainstream classrooms.

It sounds obvious. But most Texas schools teach immigrant children in Spanish, isolating them in separate classrooms.

Bordering Mexico, El Paso Independent School District is Texas' seventh-largest school district. With so many immigrants, 11 of the district's schools don't have enough native English-speakers to merit their own classrooms for certain grades.

Teaching everyone in Spanish would have been simplest. But that would have meant putting fluent English speakers into Spanish-language bilingual programs.

So last month, some English-speaking students in grades 2 through 5 were assigned to formerly bilingual classes. Now English- and Spanish-speakers are learning together -- in English.

The district has not made public the extent of the change. But it appears to involve around 100 students -- maybe more.

The small experiment gives Texas educators an excellent chance to explore immersion education. Freed from segregated classrooms, affected immigrant students have a unique opportunity to learn English.

Texas policy-makers should pay close attention to how they perform.

Currently, Texas has the nation's second-largest population of English learners, about 700,000. State law requires elementary schools with more than 20 English learners to offer bilingual education

Middle and high schools have more flexibility. Some offer "pullout" programs that give students some exposure to mainstream classrooms. But most districts choose traditional bilingual programs, dividing immigrants from English-speaking peers.

Unfortunately, these programs separate Spanish-speaking children precisely when they're young and most able to learn a new language.

In Texas, bilingual students leaving pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade can't be reclassified as English-proficient, regardless of whether they actually are or not. These students usually remain in bilingual programs until at least third grade. That means they're 8 years old before they get extended exposure to English -- and often have a harder time achieving proficiency.

In fact, it seems many of them never catch up.

One in three Texas bilingual students fails to graduate high school. The U.S. Department of Education has singled out Texas as one of nine states where more than 10 percent of English learners were not promoted to the next grade.

Bilingual education is simply failing these kids.

Two states -- California and Arizona -- have enacted programs along the lines of El Paso's experiment. They've abolished programs that segregate Spanish speakers from their classmates.

The states quickly made impressive gains in closing the minority gap, particularly in districts that wholeheartedly adopted immersion.

In 2004, 47 percent of California's English learners scored in the top two proficiency categories on the English Language Development Test. Only 25 percent did in 2001, shortly after the state first implemented immersion.

Arizona saw similar improvements. A 2002-03 government study found immersion students outperformed students in bilingual programs by more than a year in some grades.

States like Arizona and California have numerous, proven immersion models from which Texas educators can choose. If successful, the district should move to the immersion model permanently, as officials hinted they might. Already, they've said more schools may join the program within a year.

Educators and policy-makers should keep a close eye on El Paso's experiment. All of Texas' immigrant students -- not just those in a pilot program -- deserve a chance to learn English while they're young.

Kelly Torrance is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.