A Successful Educational Melting Pot

The Dover Elementary School in Richardson, Texas, a Dallas suburb, presents its teachers with a different type of challenge from most schools. For almost half of Dover's 450 students, English is not the first language. That's not so unusual any longer in many parts of the United States. What is unusual is that they speak 27 different first languages.

Dover's apparent success with its polyglot student population – it has received the second-highest performance rating possible from the Texas Education Agency – may offer some clues to how to approach the controversial topic of bilingual education.

The students come from 41 different countries. They are a diverse socioeconomic, cultural, racial, ethnic and religious group. They come from all over – Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Far East. Their parents have immigrated for many reasons: to escape war, revolution, or political oppression, or simply in search of a better future for their families. Whatever the reason for coming, the neighborhood served by Dover has proven attractive to many, probably because the area has affordable housing and because earlier immigrant families have settled there.

Dover, which has kindergarten through sixth grade classes, does have bilingual kindergarten and first grade classes for Spanish-speaking students. But the school couldn't find teachers for all of the other 26 languages, even if it tried, and even if it did, there wouldn't be enough children speaking each of the other languages to fill all the classes. So the school is driven by necessity to what might be described as modified immersion.

Except for the bilingual classes, teaching is in English, but the school often turns to teacher's aides, parents or other people outside the school to assist children in grasping concepts that they aren't understanding in English. In the same way, after first grade the children who have been in bilingual education still get bilingual assistance as needed. It helps that one teacher's aide speaks eight languages, and the students tend to learn from one another.

Dane Schiller, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, described the teaching approach this way in a recent article: "The children are surrounded by English, and instructors start by teaching them the alphabet, using books, and acting things out using facial expressions and hand gestures. There are also songs and games that have a universal appeal.

"While teachers don't speak most of the children's native languages, they have sometimes brought in parents and other members of the community to help as volunteers."

Ann Hampton, the Richardson school district's executive director of education, told Schiller, "Kids are pretty resilient. They are survivors by nature. If we give them the assistance they need, they will survive and thrive, and we will all be much better off."

Nonetheless, children don't make uniform progress in learning English, any more than in learning anything else, and the principal and teachers at Dover say they make a special effort to spot those who are having difficulty and to find extra help for them.

Some of the families have expressed concern that in the push to learn English, their children will forget their native language. Their concern is reasonable, and it is desirable to be fluent in more than one language. But children in the United States who do not become fluent in English will be handicapped as adults.

The original rationale for bilingual education was to move non-English-speaking children gradually into classes where only English was spoken. Unfortunately, there have been too many instances of Spanish-speaking children being trapped in bilingual classes far too long for one reason or another – often because it meant more state or federal funds for the school system.

Because almost all bilingual education programs have been for Spanish-speaking children, children with some other first language have for the most part had no choice other than total immersion in English-speaking classes. It seems to have worked for most, although there may be exceptions.

But this raises the question: why do those who maintain that Spanish-speaking children can only make a gradual transition to English-speaking classes think those children are any less capable of learning English than children who speak other languages?



The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.