Has Bilingual Education Been Columbused?

Has bilingual education been columbused? Have programs that Latino community activists fought for since the 1960s  now been “discovered” by White middle and upper-class communities? One illustrative example that the answer to both of these questions is a worrisome yes can be found in a recent New York Times Article entitled “Making Language Immersion Fun for Kids” that I saw many people saw on my Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds. This article columbuses bilingual education by both ignoring the history of Latino community activism that have made these programs possible.

The erasure of the history of Latino community activism is most apparent when the article calls Fabrice Jaumont, the education attaché for the French Embassy in New York “the godfather of immersion education.” Actually, if there are any godparents of bilingual education in New York City it would be the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community activists who as part of their community control experiment in the late 1960s began offering bilingual education to the Latino students in the district. Bilingual education quickly spread to other schools throughout the city. These were bilingual/bicultural programs that  sought to bring about a larger anti-racist transformation of schools by providing bilingual education to all Latino students. It was only later that Latino community activists were forced to compromise and accept a transitional model that was offered only to students who scored under a certain level on an English language proficiency exam.

Yet, even after this compromise Latino community activists continued to fight for transformative bilingual education programs to be made available to Latino students. These transformative bilingual education programs came in many forms and under many names throughout the years (late-exit, maintenance, developmental and most recently dual language) but what characterized them all was an explicit goal of building on and extending the bilingualism of the Latino students (and increasingly the non-Latino students) who participated in these programs.

Despite the persistence of these programs, in the article Jaumont claims that “the first public school to adopt an immersion program was P.S. 58 in Brooklyn.” A closer examination of PS 58 indicates that it has a French-English dual language program where students from French-speaking and English-speaking homes are instructed in both languages. This is certainly not the first such program in New York City. Nor would it have been possible without the Latino community activists who have fought for transformational bilingual spaces in public schools for decades. It is this community activism that set the stage for bilingual education in languages other than Spanish, with French being one of the newer additions.

The point of noting this columbusing is not to undermine the efforts to expand dual language programs that are documented in this article. My concern is that the columbusing of bilingual education will lead to its gentrification. As more White families “discover” these programs they risk being transformed into programs exclusively for the privileged.  For example, the city of Hoyoke currently has a dual language program that is reserved for “gifted and talented” students with the ELL director of the district noting that “it’s a certain type of student who can come in and embrace the many ways that it will be challenging. The curriculum is pretty fast paced.” This “certain type of student” seems to be disproportionally English dominant with the first kindergarten class serving seven students reported to be Spanish dominant and sixteen students reported to have had little to no exposure to Spanish before attending the program. How soon is it before the columbising of bilingual education leads to all of them becoming “gifted and talented” programs for English-dominant White students with Latinos and other minoritized students pushed out of these programs into less desirable English-Only classrooms?

I am certain that the columbusing of bilingual education comes from people with good intentions. Yet, good intentions are not enough and columbising will always negatively impact minoritized communities regardless of the intentions. It is not enough to be committed to bilingual education. Instead, a commitment to bilingual education must also entail building on the long history of minoritized community activism that made these programs possible. It must entail continuing to work in solidarity with these communities as they work toward the anti-racist transformation of current schooling practices. Ultimately, it must entail resisting the White gaze that frames bilingual education from the perspective of ambitious middle and upper-class White people and toward the embracing of an anti-racist gaze that frames bilingual education from the perspectives of the minoritized communities who have the most to gain from these programs and the most to lose should they become gentrified.


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