As a community, Salem is at a critical juncture in the "turnaround" of our schools.
We know that we must improve MCAS scores as, for better or worse, that is the mandated measure of accomplishment. We also know that issues surrounding language and literacy should be at the heart of our collective demand for excellence, as strong literacy skills lead to success by every measure.
As a diverse community, we have the resources and the potential to capitalize on the existing literacy skills of every child, and make every student proficient in both English and Spanish. This should be a priority as we seek to improve our schools.
Last year, The New York Times reported on "The Best School $75 Million Can Buy" — a new private, for-profit school with big plans. This "World School" — which will pilot in New York, and soon be reproduced in others of the world's major cities — will educate cosmopolitan, world citizens who can easily shift gears from Shanghai to Mexico City. Bilingualism and multicultural competency are key goals. In New York, according to the story, "students ... will learn bilingually, immersed in classrooms where half of the instruction will be in Spanish or Mandarin, the other half in English." Meanwhile, other exclusive private schools, and public schools in wealthy suburbs, make foreign languages and bilingualism a priority.
In the San Francisco area, according to a 2007 article in that city's newspaper, "Private bilingual schools for students of French and German are well-established — there are at least five French bilingual schools in the Bay Area alone — and they've long been popular among well-heeled parents with European connections wanting to raise cultured children who can skillfully navigate the global economy."
Closer to home in Brookline, the Driscoll public school starts teaching Mandarin in kindergarten so that children can take Advanced Placement Chinese in high school. (The other elementary schools in this affluent Boston suburb, known as having one of the state's best school systems, teach Spanish.)
Wealthy parents pay to have "conversation partners" for their children and Spanish lessons beginning in preschool.
People with plenty of money have realized that bilingualism is an important educational goal and an educational asset. In poorer, more diverse immigrant communities, though, bilingual children are being systematically educated out of their bilingualism.
In public schools where bilingual education is prohibited, and children are reprimanded for speaking their native language even on the playground, Spanish-speaking children are learning to read, write and do arithmetic in English only, and getting the message that Spanish is for uneducated people. In some cases, Spanish-language classes are delayed until the fifth grade, and native speakers' fluency is ignored as they are placed in beginner-level classes. Instead of seeing their fluency in Spanish as an asset, the schools either ignore it or treat it as a deficit that they need to overcome.
By not capitalizing on the linguistic advantage that the bilingual student population in Salem brings to the district, we are raising a generation of language- and literacy-impoverished children and sending the message that we do not value Spanish as an important subject. Worse, we are taking bilingual or almost-bilingual children and, instead of building on their existing talents and advantages, are deliberately de-educating them in their native languages.
Studies have demonstrated the tremendous cognitive and creative benefits of bilingualism. Besides preparing our children for life in a global society, improved critical thinking skills, problem-solving and creativity are some of the additional advantages to foreign language acquisition. Starting early is the preferred method, as this capitalizes on the mental flexibility of the young child's mind and increases the likelihood of reaching proficiency and perfecting pronunciation and intonation. And it is known that strong first-language skills lead to even stronger second-language skills.
We must demand language instruction that builds on each student's strengths, and that incorporates current research and standards. We need teachers fully trained and licensed in teaching language for all of Salem's students, ideally beginning in kindergarten.
Nathaniel Bowditch School, which used to have a strong two-way bilingual program, must be allowed to maintain and strengthen this program with talented teachers and 21st-century resources. By showing that we value Spanish as a key to 21st-century literacy, we will more convincingly engage Spanish-speaking parents to become the resource they can be, and send the message to bilingual students that their existing knowledge is valuable.
We see these potentially bilingual children who have been deprived of strong language programs when they get to college. They speak "kitchen Spanish," but don't know how to read or write in Spanish, much less discuss history, art, music or math. They are often ashamed to converse with those educated in Latin America. We now have the opportunity to reverse this trend.
We know from all of the published research that strong two-way bilingual and sheltered English immersion programs can eliminate the achievement gap of immigrant students. Our school improvement plans must put into place the best possible language programs — not only for newcomers, but for all of our students from every background. With a community as diverse and rich in language resources as ours, all of Salem's students have the potential to graduate from high school with strong academic skills in both English and Spanish.
The upper classes know the value of multilingualism. That's why they are willing to go to great lengths to make sure that their own children learn other languages. Salem's public schools should promote bilingualism as an asset, instead of reserving it for the privileged. Salem would do well to demand the rewards and value of true bilingual education, and insist on strong language programs in both English and Spanish for all of our children.
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Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University. Jennifer Juste is a staff attorney for Neighborhood Legal Services. Michelle Pierce chairs the Adolescent Education and Leadership Department at Salem State University.