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 Article of Interest - Bilingual Education

Parents Learn English, So They Can Help Their Children

by Laura Pappano, from the Boston Globe, November 3, 2002
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The class is talking about the Boston Tea Party, and English as a Second Language teacher Nora O'Connor makes a point about irregular verbs.

''I don't say `I putted.' I say, `I put.' You don't say `throwed.' You say, `They threw the tea into the harbor,''' O'Connor explains to Luisa Perez and 15 other adults at a class last week sponsored by the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain.

For Perez, whose 5-year-old daughter is in kindergarten and whose son is a ninth-grader at Boston Latin Academy, there is one overwhelming reason to learn English: To help her children succeed in school.

''My daughter is learning letters; this way I can explain the letters,'' said Perez, an Ecuadoran immigrant who can now also read her son's daily assignment list and help with homework, including using the dictionary. ''I need the English for my children,'' she said.

The heated political debate over bilingual education may be focused on how schools teach English to children, whether by immersion or bilingual instruction. But what about the parents? It may not be part of the rallying cry for either side in the contentious battle over the ballot initiative, but talk with ESL program directors and teachers and you hear that parents want to learn English to get better jobs and to help their children with schoolwork.

''When a parent doesn't speak English, it creates a tremendous disability to that parent to really participate in a child's education,'' said Joanne Appleton Arnaud, executive director of the Boston Adult Literacy Fund. ''They can't read the notes from their child's teacher. They can't participate in parent-teacher conferences. They can't help their children with their homework. They can't make informed decisions about which school placement is best for their child.''

The fund supports 125 English as a second language programs in Greater Boston. Last year 92 percent of adults in their programs were the primary caretakers of children, Arnaud said.

How critical it is for parents to learn English may be a matter for debate. Elsa Auerbach, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who trains teachers of adult literacy and English as a second language, said a 1983 study linked parental literacy with children's success at reading. But for second-language learners, she said, parents should model literacy, perhaps by taking English classes, but what's most critical is rich language usage in any tongue, not English itself.

Jeanne Paratore is associate professor of education at Boston University and adviser to the Intergenerational Literacy Project, a partnership between the university and the Chelsea public schools. Data collected since 1989 on participants of the project, which teaches parents and children to read and write in English and instructs parents on how to interact with teachers, show ''no relationship between a parent's proficiency in English and their interest, ability, willingness, capacity to support their children in school,'' Paratore said.

And yet data also show that schools that perform at levels higher than expected have high parent involvement, she said. The research may say it is fine - in some cases even better - for parents to interact with students at home in their native language, particularly if parents struggle in English.

Still, there is a growing push and high demand to teach parents English.

In Boston, Arnaud said, adults usually wait six months to three years to get into an English as a second language program, depending on class times.

Last month in Montgomery County, Md., School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast called for a center to teach parents English as a way to close the achievement gap between students who do speak English as their first language and those who do not.

''What we have is a large number of children trying to learn English at school, and their parents are unable to reinforce that at home, because they themselves do not speak English,'' said school spokesman Brian J. Porter.

Involving parents and teaching them English is a key to Superintendent Eduardo Carballo's effort to turn around the troubled Holyoke school system. Carballo, who came to the United States at age 14 as a Cuban refugee, created a new post of director of adult and parent education after he took over as superintendent in January. The district has won several early literacy grants, including one for a program that has preschoolers and a parent learning English at the same center.

''Everything I read says the more parents are involved in the education of their children, the better the academic achievement,'' Carballo said. He pointed out that some parents have complained that they couldn't help their children with homework.

The district's school population is 73 percent Hispanic. While many of the students speak English well, parents may not, Carballo said.

''We need to make them as literate as we can in English,'' he said. ''The truth of the matter is, without English, you will not go far in this country, and our parents know that.''

Isolda Ortega - agency director for the Community Education Project, a citywide collaborative of adult educators in Holyoke - said the program can serve only about 200 adults per year. That's only 2 to 3 percent of those who need English as a second language classes, according to the Adult and Parent Education Department in the Holyoke School Department.

One of the problems, Ortega said, is that many immigrants are not literate in their first language. They are so motivated that they complain that four-hour classes are too short, she said.

Yolanda Robles, a native language literacy teacher, said that adults want to learn to read, even in Spanish, so they can read aloud to their children. ''They don't even know how to spell their name,'' Robles said.

The challenge for many schools that serve immigrants is to get parents comfortable with how schools work in the United States.

At the Lawrence Family Development Charter School, a parent center offers citizenship and English classes, as well as parent training on participating in school activities. ''Our big aim is to develop families, to give students a united front,'' said principal Sunita Mehrotra. Although students at the fully bilingual school may chose to do assignments in English or in Spanish, Mehrotra said parents ''are always pushing their kids to learn English.''

Certainly, when parents do not speak English, the equation grows more complicated.

Richard Romero is a two-way bilingual education teacher at the Rafael Hernandez School in Roxbury. He taught first grade in Newton last year and before that taught at the Van Buren School in Indio, Calif., where he taught English immersion classes to children of migrant farmworkers. Romero said the experience taught him that what works best - bilingual education or immersion - as much to do with what families bring to the schoolhouse door, Romero said.

''There is a limited amount of time for teachers to instruct students,'' he said of bilingual education. ''Students who are struggling, who do not have the support at home are often unable to cope in two languages. It's too much to do in too little amount of time.''

But ''for children who have support at home, it is not too much to ask and it is a great opportunity,'' he said of bilingual education.

At the Hyde Square Task Force class and at similar English as a second language programs statewide, there may be much anticipation about Tuesday's vote on the English immersion ballot question. But for Maria Diaz, mother of a fifth-grader who is in a bilingual education program, her immediate goal remains the same. She wants to learn English, because she is tired of needing her brother or friends to help with her son's schoolwork.

''If I learn English, I can understand what he's doing,'' Diaz said. ''If I know English, I can go to the school, and I can speak with his teachers.''

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