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Bilingual Education Column

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Officials in the Florida Department of Education say the state is conducting an extensive review of its bilingual-education policies to avert a threatened lawsuit by Latino and Haitian organizations.

Sydney H. McKenzie, a lawyer for the department, said the state is negotiating with the language-minority groups and has launched an "across-the-board" review of policies that deal with students having limited proficiency in English.

"Everything is not on the table yet," Mr. McKenzie said, but negotiations are proceeding "constructively," and there appears to be "a good chance" the state will change or clarify a wide range of bilingual-education policies.

The negotiations began in September after the state chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens and other organizations threatened to file a suit claiming that the state has been slow to identify language-minority students. The organizations have also charged that the state has done little to ensure that local districts provide these children with adequate instruction and access to special-education and dropout-prevention programs, among other services.

Puerto Rican children living in the mainland United States are more likely to be high achievers in school if they come from structured home environments where both Spanish and English are spoken, a study by a Pennsylvania State University researcher concludes.

Lourdes Diaz Soto, an assistant professor of education, set out to study the types of home environments that foster the development of high-achieving minority children. She visited the homes of 59 Puerto Rican families in southeastern urban Pennsylvania who had children in the 5th or 6th grades.

Ms. Soto concluded that high achievers' families spoke both Spanish and English much more often.

"It appears that the children in families that are more bilingual experience an enrichment that helps in their school success," Ms. Soto said.

Also crucial for achievement was an organized and supportive home environment where parents maintained optimal levels of supervision, Ms. Soto said.

The study, released last month, found that such variables as socioeconomic status, marital status of parents, and number of years residing in the United States mainland did not appear to be major factors affecting children's achievement.

If Hispanic parents wish to get in touch with a Dallas public school, they may not have much luck doing it over the phone, a school board trustee recently concluded.

Rene Castilla, a trustee with the Dallas Independent School District, recently checked up on the accessibility of 10 district schools by having someone call and ask in Spanish to speak to the principal.

In all cases, Mr. Castilla told the board last month, the school employee answering the telephone either hung up or placed the person on hold for two minutes or more.

In eight of the schools, Hispanic children account for at least 10 percent of the student enrollment.

School officials apologized for the incidents and said they would take steps to address the problem.

The Boston Teachers Union has filed a grievance against the Boston Public Schools because, it says, some bilingual-education classes have more than twice the number of students allowed under state law.

Richard F. Stutman, a secondary-school field representative for the teachers' union, said school closings and consolidations have meant that some bilingual-education classes have more than 30 students, even though the legal limit is 18.

0Mr. Stutman said the overcrowding is centered at South Boston High School. About 230 students in the city's Cape Verdean bilingual-education program were reassigned to South Boston High this year after Madison Park Comprehensive High School was closed.

While acknowledging that the consolidation resulted in some short-term overcrowding, Nydia Mendez, director of bilingual education for the district, said last week that the situation has been corrected by freeing up some additional space and adding new teachers.

More than 130 students walked out of South Boston High earlier this month over complaints about safety, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions.

Mr. Stutman said teachers have difficulty maintaining order within the school, which is the site of frequent violence between various ethnic gangs.

The U.S. Education Department has awarded a three-year, $2.1-million grant to a University of Wisconsin resource center that seeks to show schools that students with native languages other than English are a rich cultural resource, and not a problem.

The Upper Great Lakes Multifunctional Resource Center will use the grant to offer workshops, in-school visits, and other services designed to improve bilingual education in Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, a center spokesman said.

The Wisconsin center, founded three years ago with a $1.8 million federal grant, is one of 16 regional centers funded by the U.S. office of bilingual education and minority language affairs.

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