School Watch: Immigrants and Catholic Schools

I recently debated bilingual education at a Washington, D.C., area public magnet school. My opponent, an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher, said that Spanish-speaking children in her school district were being moved from first grade to second grade, and even to third grade, without sufficient English skills. Her solution was to give these children additional instruction while still in first grade to better prepare them for the next level. Incredibly, this additional instruction would not be in English, but in Spanish.

It seems obvious that if a child is lacking in a particular skill, the solution is further instruction specifically in that skill. After all, you don’t improve math skills by teaching history. Yet, her objective was not to improve the children’s English, but their self-esteem. She was more concerned with children not being held back than with actually teaching them something.

The reason for this attitude is simple: the quality of public schools is measured by how few students are held back in their grade level and not by actual skills learned. It never once occurred to her that children who are not ready for the next grade level should remain in their current grade.

Ironically, across the hall from our debate was a class for adults facing the same struggles with English as the children my debate opponent was talking about. These immigrants, from such places as Ethiopia, Peru, Lithuania, and Haiti, were learning to read and write in English, many for the first time in any language. I can only imagine what they would say if they heard that they would learn English better if they were taught in their native languages, as bilingual education tries to do to children.

Thanks to the Department of Education’s Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs (OBE-MLA) many public schools are often forced to abide by this particular, flawed methodology. Several states require schools to provide bilingual education and often make it very difficult for parents to remove their children from these programs.

In these states, students with difficulty in English, nearly 60 percent of whom are Americans by birth, are placed in bilingual programs in which as much as 80 percent of their day is spent in “native language”—even if it isn’t their native language—rather than English.

New York is particularly notorious for placing children who do not speak Spanish into Spanish native-language programs through the use of a misleading home language survey and a rigged English exam. If your child has a Spanish surname, the school will send you a home language survey asking if anyone in your home speaks a language other than English. If you answer yes, whether or not your child speaks anything other than English, he or she will have to take an English exam. All students scoring below the 40th percentile, which by definition is 40 percent of all the students taking the exam, are placed in bilingual education.

One parent, Dominga Sanchez, had to fight the school for two years to get her son, Javier, out of the program. Javier was put in bilingual classes even though he did not speak Spanish. To make matters worse, the state violates its own laws and routinely allows children to remain in the program for more than three years. One group of parents in Brooklyn is suing the state to get them to enforce this law. Currently, children have remained in these programs for up to eight years.

The theory behind bilingual education is a perfect example of the cart-before-the-horse mentality that dominates the education establishment. There is evidence suggesting that students who are literate in their native language learn a second language faster. By turning this on its head, OBEMLA, and their cohorts at the National Association for Bilingual Education, have determined that the fastest way to teach English to someone who is not literate in any language is to make them literate in their native language first.

This is the same backwards thinking that drives all the talk about self-esteem. Students develop self-esteem from achievement, so some educators, like my debating partner, are trying to instill self-esteem in order to produce achievement.

The good news is that not all children are doomed to suffer at the hands of those who have been indoctrinated by the Department of Education. Private schools in general, and Catholic schools in particular, are taking the proven path to English learning. Immigrant parents are attracted to Catholic schools for the same reasons other parents are: an emphasis on results over appearances.

One clear advantage Catholic schools have over public schools is freedom. Each of the three Catholic schools I visited faced different types of English learners and had tailored their programs independently to address their specific needs.

My first stop was the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Washington. Of the 210 students in this K-8 school, 64 percent are Hispanic. Evelyn Moncano, the sole English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in the school, explained the different aspects of her program. Children needing the most assistance are pulled out of their regular classes for part of the day for instruction in English. As the students’ English improves, the amount of time they are pulled out decreases and there is a greater emphasis placed on academic skills.

In the later stages of English learning, she will actually sit with the students during their regular classes and assist them as necessary. On average, students are no longer pulled out after one year, but they are still required to meet with her after school at least once a week.

Ms. Moncano estimates that these children are reaching the skill level of native English speakers in about two years. All of the students in the program are Spanish speakers, and Ms. Moncano does occasionally use Spanish to help the children understand certain lessons. However, unlike bilingual education, the children are taught English in English.

The Annunciation Catholic school, also in Washington, has a much more diverse group of students with English needs. Unlike Sacred Heart, whose language-minority students come from lower-middle-class families and are entirely Spanish speakers, Annunciation’s language-minority students are mostly the children of diplomats, and consequently speak several languages.

According to Heather Jafari and Sister Felicity McGowan, the school’s two ESL teachers, their students rarely come to school without some English ability. Students are pulled out for about forty-five minutes of English instruction three times a week. Having diplomatic parents, most students rarely stay in the U.S. for more than two years, and maintaining their native language is an important consideration. Since the school offers Spanish as part of the curriculum, native Spanish speakers are able to maintain their language. They are, however, placed at a higher course level than non-Spanish speakers.

Due to the diversity of the languages spoken by the students, the teachers must use English exclusively in the ESL program. The class I observed had only four students, three of whom were Spanish speakers and one of whom was from Angola.

St. Catherine Labour in Maryland is even more diverse. Its students come from working-class immigrant families and fifty-two different countries. The one thing that struck me most about the ESL program at St. Catherine was that it is not limited to students needing help in English. The program is so personally tailored to individual student needs that often native-English speakers with difficulties in reading or other subjects can benefit substantially. One class I observed included a child from English-speaking Ireland.

Roberta Dorr is the resource coordinator for the program, which has several teachers. Like Sacred Heart, St. Catherine uses pull-out instruction as well as having an ESL teacher sit in with more advanced students in their regular classes. Another similarity to Sacred Heart is that Ms. Dorr tries to get a native language speaker to assist students at the beginning stages.

The Catholic Schools Office for the Archdiocese of Washington is very supportive of these programs and offers financial assistance to immigrant parents. The schools themselves also provide tuition assistance to needy parents. Parish schools often operate at a loss and depend on the direct support of their parish and parents. Sister Mary Gilbart, the principal at St. Catherine, estimated their per-student cost at $2,700, yet in-parish tuition is only $1,500. D.C. public schools, on the other hand, spend an average of more than $9,000 per student and have precious little to show for it.

Given the excellent academic track record of Catholic schools, I was more than a little surprised to discover that the Catholic Schools Office is hosting a series of meetings with OBEMLA. This is the same group whose only solution for the 50 percent dropout rate for Hispanic children with difficulty in English is more bilingual education.

The dropout rate for non-Spanish speakers with difficulties in English is less than 30 percent. The difference between the two groups is that, for the most part, non-Spanish-speaking language-minority students get ESL while Spanish speakers languish in bilingual programs.

Most of the teachers I spoke with seemed skeptical about the benefits of meeting with OBEMLA, but were willing to continue meeting with them for informational purposes. These seminars also include ESOL teachers from area public schools. It is hoped that Catholic schools will stick with their proven programs and continue to help the children of immigrants become Americans.


  • Jorge Amselle

    At the time this article was published, Jorge Amselle was the communications director for the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C. Amselle is now on the public relations team at Libertas Global Partners in Annapolis, Maryland.

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