While many school districts around the country are tied up in disputes over bilingual education, Montgomery County has defused potential controversies by mixing instructional methods and by relying primarily on local and state instead of federal support.
The county is home to 9,000 children whose native language is not English; a third of them are in special classes. Most were born in Asia or Latin America, and they represent 10 percent of the total school enrollment.
Special programs include English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes with English-only instruction and bilingual classes taught in the child's native language and English.
Elementary students attend ESOL classes for part of the day, usually for one or two years, said ESOL coordinator Betty Knight. The rest of the day they attend regular classes.
High school students who are recent immigrants are often instructed in their native languages in the subjects that are completely new to them, such as U.S. history and government. This blending of approaches has helped overcome the all-or-nothing extremes that have caused trouble for many school districts.
Some districts offer no bilingual classes at all, raising fears that students will fall far behind in their courses while they learn English, become frustrated and drop out. Other districts offer bilingual instruction for the full 12 years of schooling, causing concern in some quarters about separatism or the development of separate ethnic school systems. Federal court suits demanding bilingualism as a form of equity also have complicated the instructional process elsewhere.
Montgomery's adult education system uses ESOL to teach English to 1,500 residents, director Marlene Ringler said. Students attend two to four classes a week during the night or day. They learn about U.S. customs, laws and public services in addition to the language.
Ringler recently began intensive classes at Bethesda's Ashburton Elementary School in response to a request by some parents and educators who believed foreign-born parents were not attending school activities because of their poor English.
For the same reason, Ringler is considering setting up classes at Rockville's Farmland Elementary School. She also has begun English classes at several corporations with large numbers of foreign-born employes.
Montgomery's bilingual and ESOL programs are sustained primarily by state and local funds, with some supplemental money from the federal government. This contrasts with other school districts that depend on federal funds and are subject to federal intervention or control as a result.
The result is that when the federal bilingual program comes up before Congress for reauthorization this summer, Montgomery will be interested in, rather than reliant upon, the outcome of this already highly charged debate.
Alex Stein is an educational consultant who serves on the Citizens Advisory Board of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service district office and on the Rockville Education Advisory Board.