Fifteen Minutes: Lost and Found in Translation: The Bilingual Problem
With a staff of only 18, the CRLS bilingual program, training students in a second language by immersing the language study into their general program, might be weakened by the division of Rindge and Latin into five autonomous schools. The sense of community and family essential to the program would be lost with bilingual students and teachers spread across multiple schools.
"It's hard to see the advantage of splitting them up and sending them to the four winds," explains Arnold Clayton, teacher in the bilingual program.
Currently, the bilingual program is housed in The Academy. While bilingual students comprise only 40 percent of the house, all students whose mother-tongue is not English are placed in the program unless they or their parents request otherwise.
The Bilingual Program has three main components: English as Second Language (ESL), which is taken for at least two periods a day, content area courses (mathematics, science, and social studies) taught in ESL and content courses taught in the native language. But even in these native language courses, adds Elsie Vega, a teacher supervising the bilingual program, "I forget Spanish around January."
For both Clayton and Vega, the issue is clear-cut. A majority of the kids in the program face "skill-barriers" as well as language barriers. The idea of the program to help them gain skills that are transferable. "How are you ever going to get a kid to read Shakespeare if he can't read Cervantes," asks Clayton. "The overwhelming majority [of the Spanish-speaking students] can't write a coherent well-punctuated sentence in Spanish."
The changing demographic of Cambridge has two aspects. On the one hand, the elimination of rent control has forced low-income families out of Cambridge. The result is that the bilingual program's enrollment is significantly lower than it once was. In the 1970s, the number of students enrolled was around 300; today that number hovers around 180. On top of the reduced enrollment, the teachers face a wider variety of nationalities in the classroom. When the program first began, the student were mostly Greek, Portugese, Hispanic or Haitian. Today, there are greater instances of "low-incidence languages," with students from Pakistan, India, Africa, China and Vietnam. Consequently, they cannot hold classes in native languages because there is not a significant enough incidence of any one language. The call to create what Clayton terms a "bilingual diaspora" is dangerous.
To him, the imminent restructuring reveals a lack of understanding of the program's major focus: helping its students make the transition to America. Their task is as much cultural as it is academic. Spreading the bilingual program across five "air-tight" houses would "not let us care for the students educationally, physically, emotionally in a holistic way. I don't believe we should restrict access to the emotional and physical resources in an artificial way."
In order to explain this more personal connection, Vega points to the culture of respect for adults found in Hispanic families. "Teachers are considered second parents," she says. "When parents meet with me, they say, and the kid is right there: you have the authority to do my job." "I yell and I scream and I hug and I kiss," explains Filomena Silva, assistant house administrator of The Academy.
Still, the issue of perceived isolation and ghettoization lingers. On the one hand, Clayton dismisses the issue as a "superficial" one.
"Integration is an easy word to say, but a hard concept to implement. Integration does not mean that my tuchas is next to your tuchas in homeroom. These kids have other problems. They need help."
In addition, Vega does not see the Bilingual Program as a permanent home for most students. "The purpose of the bilingual program is the transition to the standard curriculum," she says.