Native speakers of another language can easily lose their native language if not continuously exposed to it. Young immigrants, who attend English-only schools frequently fail to achieve an advanced level in their language, have limited vocabulary and rarely learn to write in that language. What a tremendous loss for children who could easily have become bilingual. But on the flip side, those same students take much longer to learn English when placed in transitional classrooms in which the majority of their day is taught in their native language and in which they are grouped with other students who share the same native language. This is the very issue that has caused many districts to rethink their bilingual programs and has spread so much concern about the cost versus the benefit of such programs.
District officials in Commerce City, Colorado have become concerned by this as reported by The Denver Post yesterday:
Fifty-four percent of Adams 14's 6,500 students are English-language learners, and recent studies have shown they are not becoming fluent in English as they move through the district.
"The majority of students who have been in the district for six years still remain limited in proficiency of English," said Superintendent Sue Chandler in a letter to parents. "There is little indication of progress in literacy and language."
Chandler said the district is ditching its bilingual policy that was "overly proscriptive" and moving to a flexible policy that will "allow the district to develop a program to best meet the needs of all students who are acquiring English."
"The fact is we haven't changed it yet," Albright said about the new language policy. "But we know we need to do something better."
It is doubtful that Commerce City is alone in confronting this issue. There is obviously a problem about many of these bilingual programs that needs to be addressed. It is unfair for these students to lag so far behind their peers in English. But what system would work better? I can only imagine that the "correct solution" would vary widely by community. But whatever solution is created needs to take into account both English language acquisition and native language maintenance. Only in this way are we truly educating these students to their full capacity.