Bucking the trend
Despite the fiscal challenges many districts face, Stamford Superintendent Winifred Hamilton added eight bilingual teaching positions to this school year’s budget.
“We’re hiring,” she said during an interview before the start of the school year. “Many districts have had to reduce staff, but from fiscal efficiencies and a very strong grants program, I will guarantee to you that we will have no students that we have identified who will not be supported.”
Stamford schools are accommodating 2,400 students in English Language Learner programs, out of a total of 17,000 students in its school system. Hamilton is looking at an increase of 2,000 students throughout the Stamford school system this year. “I think the fact that Stamford is a vibrant city, with jobs and growth and new construction, has families moving in. They have relatives here and employment.”
That means, for Hamilton, more English Language Learners, students with special needs, and students who require reduced-price lunch programs. The state’s latest figures show that 79 percent of English Language Learners were eligible for either free or reduced-price meals.
Yet grant money from the state specifically for bilingual education has stood still for many years at $1.9 million statewide. The federal government has not increased its contribution either: $4,540,480.
The challenge of Mexican immigration
Many of the English Language Learners who move to Stamford, Danbury, and other high-Latino-population cities in Connecticut hail from Mexico. In Aviles’s case, he was particularly lucky; according to the international Migration Policy Institute, children from Mexican immigrant families score well below national norms.
In 2012, Mexican-born immigrants made up about 28 percent of the almost 41 million foreign-born individuals in the United States, establishing themselves as the largest immigrant group in the country, according to the institute.
When those Mexican immigrants enter the United States, they typically, as Aviles’s own experience proved, do not speak English.
“When I arrived, I couldn’t understand what was going on and what was happening, and my classes made a difference,” Aviles said. “Now I know what people are saying to me, and I know how to respond.”
State law requires bilingual instruction be provided to students like Aviles for at least 30 months, and if students are still unable to pass English mastery tests, the district is required to provide language transition support services.
State law identifies English as the medium for instruction in public schools and bilingual instruction is meant to help students use English and decrease use of their native language.
The Federal Civil Rights Act also requires an effective alternative language program be provided to students not yet able to participate in the regular classroom.
The ongoing debate
In a comprehensive study done by the Bridgeport Business Council, English proficiency was linked to higher earning and tax contributions, lower welfare dependency, and greater educational and economic advancement.
According to the study, “Research has confirmed for years that fluency in the English language is the common denominator of success for immigrant workers in the U.S. job market,. Due to this lack of English fluency, more than half of all workers from Mexico and Central America are employed in occupations that require little formal education: construction and extraction; building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; and restaurant/fast food services.
It’s clear that given the impact of the aging U.S. population, including the Baby Boomer generation’s potential exit from the labor force, the major growth in the U.S. labor force will come from the immigrant population between now and 2050.”