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Equity & Diversity

A Bilingual Day in the Life

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 08, 2000 3 min read
Changing Face

Juan Infante props his lanky frame on a stool in the auditorium of Central High School here to pose for his senior-class picture. First, he folds his arms and grins, then rests his chin on his fist, looking serious and reflective.

The 18-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic relishes the experience as a sign that high school will soon be ending.

“It feels good to be leaving,” he says.

But unlike many of his Hispanic peers, Infante will do so with a diploma.

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Nationally, Latino youths born outside the country are twice as likely to be out of school and not have a high school diploma as those born in the United States. Providence’s Central High, 56 percent of whose 1,700 students are Hispanic, doesn’t track its dropout statistics by those categories, but its overall dropout rate is 44 percent.

Bucking that trend, as Infante has done, has meant keeping one foot in the world of Spanish and one in the world of English.

When he arrived in the United States three years ago, he says, “I didn’t know a clue of English.” At home, he still speaks only Spanish with his parents.

As a 9th grader, Infante enrolled in the bilingual education track at Central. Each year, he took fewer bilingual education courses and more courses taught only in English. Though he’ll still be labeled “limited English proficient” when he graduates, four of his six classes this year are regular classes, not LEP classes, and all are taught in English. He generally gets B’s, except in Algebra 2, which he is struggling to pass.

Infante now speaks English fluently, and it’s become his official language at school. Whenever Infante asks a question in class or makes a presentation, for example, he does so in English.

But while making any conversation with his classmates that’s not meant especially for a teacher, he speaks Spanish. All day long, as he walks the school’s halls or sprints up and down its stairwells, Infante chats and jokes with his friends in his native language.

“I know when to speak English—when there are English-speakers around me,” he explains. “It’s not fair for them to be out of the conversation. The Spanish part is with my regular friends.”

In every class, he gravitates to students who are Spanish-speaking. In Algebra 2, for instance, he sits at a table with a girl from Guatemala, who came to the United States five years ago, and one from the Dominican Republic, who immigrated three years ago. Meanwhile, at some of the other tables, students are talking in English.

No Spanish Allowed

Advanced ESL is the only class during which Infante doesn’t speak in Spanish at all. The teacher won’t permit it.

“At this level, I say, ‘No Spanish,’” the teacher, Lynne I. Edmonds, says. “I think a lot of the students don’t speak English all day—I know they speak a lot of Spanish.”

Even in classes designed for limited-English-proficient students, some high schoolers feel embarrassed to practice their English, says Felicidad Arias, a Bolivian immigrant who teaches chemistry and biology in such classes at Central. “I force them. I tell them, if they don’t learn English, how are they going to succeed?”

During the lunch hour, Arias adds, students typically segregate themselves according to their countries of origin. “They don’t want to speak English, because they are afraid they will make mistakes and people will laugh at them,” she surmises.

Central High’s large concentration of Hispanics makes it easier for LEP students to avoid speaking English.

In that respect, the school is not unusual. The typical Hispanic student in the United States attends a school where 53 percent of the students are also Hispanic, according to researchers at the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. And nearly half of the nation’s LEP students attend schools that have a LEP population of at least 30 percent, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

Infante agrees that many of his friends are reluctant to speak English, but he doesn’t share that fear.

He hangs around Spanish-speakers because they’re the students he knows best, he says. But he would prefer if they all spoke more English.

“If I’m in a class, I like them to speak with me in English, but sometimes they can’t,” Infante says.

He counts having learned English as one of the most important tools Central has given him.

Upon graduation next spring, Infante hopes to join the U.S. Army and apply to be a military policeman, with the goal of eventually becoming a civilian police officer.

He views education as his future. “To be a police, you have to go to college to study law enforcement,” Infante says. “For me to go to college, I need a high school diploma.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as A Bilingual Day in the Life


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