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NABE Sounds Alarm on Early-Childhood Programs

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Tucson, Ariz.--Members of the National Association for Bilingual Education meeting here last week were asked to mobilize against any expansion of Head Start or other early-childhood programs that could undermine the native-language skills of limited-English-proficient children.

While the group is not opposed in principle to current proposals for expanding Head Start, said James J. Lyons, executive director of NABE, it is seeking to warn Congressional lawmakers of the "grave threat" to LEP children posed by early-childhood instruction conducted in English.

Proposals to increase the number of children served by Head Start, he noted, are likely to heavily affect language-minority children.

NABE's goal, Mr. Lyons said, is to have a significant share of new and existing Head Start money dedicated to native-language programs. Such efforts constitute "a tiny, tiny fraction" of current Head Start programs, he said.

At the association's convention here, NABE officials said they hoped to influence debate on the subject by documenting the harm that premature instruction in English can do to language-minority children. The group has launched a study of the issue that will include interviews with parents of LEP children.

The "immersion" of such children in English programs at the age of 3 or 4, Mr. Lyons said in an interview, presents "the risk of grave psychological harm."

"At root, they are being taught to disrespect their parents," he asserted.

Mr. Lyons's comments echoed those of a speaker at the conference, Lily Wong Fillmore, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley.

Ms. Fillmore told her audience that she had been "running around the country like Chicken Little" warning of the dangers of English-based early-childhood programs before she swayed Mr. Lyons to her cause.

Children "can learn a language very easily, but they can lose a language very easily," Ms. Fillmore said. "When children lose the language of the home, there is no language in which they and their parents can communicate."

Early-childhood programs in English for LEP children operate on the assumption that the chief obstacle to their education "is their families, their parents," she said.

Jim Matlack, executive director of the National Head Start Association, said last week that there were "quite a few " Head Start programs conducted in Spanish, mainly in Southern California and Texas.

He said federal guidelines stipulate that local programs find a "resource" for assisting participating children who do not speak English as a first language.

Mr. Lyons countered that federal guidelines for serving LEP children in Head Start were not being followed, owing to a lack of personnel.

President Bush proposed a $500-million increase for Head Start, to almost $2 billion, in his fiscal 1991 budget. A House subcommittee has approved a bill that would set the program's 1991 authorization level at $2.39 billion and allow lawmakers to raise spending to $7.6 billion by fiscal 1994, enabling Head Start to serve all eligible 3- and 4-year-olds and 30 percent of eligible 5-year-olds.

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