Most Hispanic U.S. States Rate the Benefits of Language Programs
ALBUQUERQUE — Jacqueline Powell and her fourth grade classmates worked hard on pencil and paper to write a letter in Spanish about what they did in class this year.
Powell explained the mission in perfect Spanish before struggling to translate the words to complete his sentence. The 10-year-old charter school student raised his forearms to his temples in a display of mental effort, rocking his large round glasses up and down.
This struggle, waged weekly at New Mexico International School in Albuquerque, put his speaking ability far ahead of some of his high school peers. It allowed her to speak Spanish with her grandmother, who was originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, and fostered a secret language between her and her mother, whose husband and stepchildren do not speak Spanish.
While bilingual programs are offered in thousands of schools across the United States, New Mexico is the only state where the right to learn in Spanish is enshrined in the constitution.
Bilingual programs like that of the International School of New Mexico are championed by Hispanic parents who want their children to cultivate cultural roots. They are also considered by education experts to be the best way for English learners to excel in K-12 schools.
The question for lawmakers in the most Hispanic state in the country is why New Mexico’s bilingual programs aren’t being used by the students who need them most.
Legislative analysts are expected to release a report in the coming weeks that will highlight the challenges faced by bilingual and other multicultural programs. It will include an overview of decades-old trends such as lack of oversight by education officials, declining attendance and fewer multicultural programs, said the spokesperson for the Legislative Committee of finance, Jon Courtney.
The report will also acknowledge the lack of information on the performance of language programs after two years without comprehensive academic testing due to the pandemic.
The number of bilingual immersion programs has increased from 126 before the pandemic to 132 last year.
State officials are supposed to evaluate the programs every three years. But the New Mexico Department of Public Education has only made one in-person visit and evaluated one school in the past three years, department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said.
The department has launched a series of forums for parents around the Hispanic Education Act, a state law that informs multicultural programs.
While there’s no consensus among educators on how best to teach languages to young children, a New Mexico court in 2018 found well-run bilingual programs to be the “gold standard.” for English learners.
The alternative, more popular in Arizona, is to separate the children for remedial lessons.
In New Mexico, English learners make up a larger share of participants in bilingual programs. They represent 63% of participants in the current school year, compared to 53% last year.
At the International School of New Mexico in Albuquerque, about half of the students are Hispanic, like Jacqueline, and reflect the city’s population.
“A lot of their parents are trying to get the language back,” said school principal Todd Knouse.
English-speaking parents say they have an easier time discovering the benefits of bilingual programs and taking the steps to get into charter schools. Schools are free but do not offer buses.
“It’s almost like a privileged experience to get your child into these programs because it takes a lot of research. Tracking the programs, how far you’re willing to drive, the (admission) lottery,” said Mary Baldwin, 34, whose daughter attends school in Albuquerque.
“And then there’s so much shame that’s placed on the Spanish language or the culture itself,” she said. “Some families may not realize that being bilingual is a huge strength, not only culturally, but also professionally.”
Baldwin immigrated to the United States from Honduras when he was 10 years old. Her daughter is the same age now and fluent enough to cook tamales wrapped in banana leaves with her Spanish-speaking grandmother thanks to the bilingual program.
Fans of the New Mexico programs say they improve Spanish speakers’ skills and give them confidence in an environment where everyone is equal when learning a new language. The programs also increase fluency and literacy in their native language.
“It’s usually beneficial to have two languages,” said Stephen Mandrgoc, a University of New Mexico historian who has studied bilingual programs in the Southwest and oversees Spanish colonial heritage programs.
When it comes to the languages spoken by Native American tribes and pueblos in New Mexico, some state laws protect the rights of students. Yet only two bilingual programs are offered in Native American languages – both in Diné, the language of the Navajo people.
Some tribes like Jemez Pueblo face a more pressing existential threat to their language due to a small population and cultural taboos that limit the creation of language material. Other tribes like Santa Clara Pueblo say underinvestment is a problem.
New Mexico officials have earmarked millions of dollars to support curriculum projects, but much of the funds go unspent. Proponents say one issue is the time over which the grants must be spent, from less than a year to sometimes as little as a month before they revert to the state.
Cedar Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.