What Kind of Madness?

By Diana Walsh
Volume 2, Number 2 (Winter 1991-1992)
Issue theme: "Getting past the immigration taboo - an international perspective"

SAN FRANCISCO -

When Lucy Lopez registered her son, Michael, for kindergarten two years ago, she pleaded with school administrators not to place him in a Spanish bilingual class. They did it anyway but they didn't keep him there. Within two weeks of his entrance into first grade, Michael, who is fluent in English and whose first language is Spanish, was transferred into yet another bilingual class - this one Chinese.

When they first told me, I almost had a cow, Lopez said. I asked them, 'Why my son, why not one of the others?'

Participation in bilingual programs is supposed to be voluntary, and eventually Lopez relented and gave her consent. But she says she felt she had no choice. At Garfield Elementary, Michael's assigned school, every kindergarten class was bilingual. The only alternative would have been to bus him to a school farther from home.

And when administrators wanted to switch him to the Chinese class - a move made to balance the number of students in the school's first grade class-rooms - Lopez said she felt too pressured to say no.

Most of Michael's first grade class is taught in English, but his teacher often switches to Cantonese to instruct youngsters who don't always understand English. If the experts are correct, Michael is probably spending a good deal of his day blocking out much of what he hears.

You've got to ask yourself what kind of madness this is, said bilingual expert Lily Wong Fillmore of UC-Berkeley. What purpose does that serve except to confuse the poor child?

Garfield principal May Huie, who acknowledged that Michael would be better off in a regular or Spanish bilingual class, said such moves are equally frustrating for administrators who face a massive juggling act each year when the district tells them how many bilingual classes they must provide.

Ligaya Avenida, who heads the bilingual department for The City's schools, says that although the district frowns upon schools that switch children back and forth between languages, it is not uncommon. It's very difficult because of space problems, she said. We could avoid it if every child came in at the beginning of the year, but with the daily influx of children, it's difficult.

Michael's mother, who graduated from San Francisco schools herself six years ago, remains concerned. I was placed in a bilingual class and I felt it held me back, she said. I didn't want that to happen to Michael.

[Ms. Walsh's article is reprinted by permission from the San Francisco Examiner, May 19, 1991, 1991 San Francisco Examiner.]