Violet Jimenez Sims Urges Bilingual Reform

Many of us are troubled by the realization that Connecticut has the nation’s largest educational achievement gap between English-language learners and students fluent in English. While many wring their hands and bemoan this sad fact, Violet Jiménez Sims is trying to do something about it.

Ms. Sims, whom we honored in 2008, has become an advocate for reform of the bilingual education system in Connecticut’s public schools. She served on a panel of educators who addressed this issue at a conference at Central Connecticut State University Feb 27-28. Earlier in February, she spoke at a forum on the topic at the New Britain Public Library.

Most recently, she posted an op-ed essay advocating reform in bilingual education in the CT Mirror online publication. We are reprinting it here.

Ms. Sims taught Spanish and English for Speakers of other Languages (ESL) for several years at New Britain High School and now is a bilingual educator and instructional coach at Manchester High School. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies from the University of Connecticut and is pursuing her doctorate at the University of Bridgeport.

Congratulations to Violet for working to make a difference. She is one of many Alma Exley Scholars who are having a positive impact in a variety of ways. Following is her op-ed from the CT Mirror. – Woody Exley

By Violet Jiménez Sims

Central Connecticut State University has taken the lead in speaking up for a marginalized sector of our population with the recent conference titled “Dos Días para Transforming Bilingual Education in Connecticut.”

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This topic is especially important to the children, parents, and educators across Connecticut, as a recent Hartford Courant article pointed out the shameful fact that our state leads the nation with the largest achievement gap between English Language Learners (ELL) and their peers who are English fluent.  According to the article, the gap in Connecticut is 54 percent larger than the national average. Why is this happening? Several reasons.

First, Connecticut state statute limits bilingual education (defined as a program where students receive academic support in their native language) to a maximum of 30 months, even though well-established research shows that students need a minimum of five years to attain grade level proficiency in a second language.

Second, Connecticut does not fully embrace dual language models, the best way for children to reach fluency bilingually. There are only six dual-language schools in the entire state and cities such as New Britain have closed down these research-based programs that are thriving internationally and throughout the rest of the country.

For example, New York currently has hundreds of dual language schools and is expanding by as many as 40 new dual language schools this year. These models are superior because they allow both ELLs and monolingual English speakers to become fully bilingual.

Third, bilingual education in Connecticut is not equitable.   For example, affluent suburban communities, such as Avon and West Hartford, offer world language instruction kindergarten through high school.  Meanwhile, most ELLs attending Connecticut’s urban districts are at risk of losing their native language as their schools focus on pushing ELLs to acquire English with methods that sacrifice their first language, but do not lead to grade level proficiency; a process known in language acquisition theory as fossilization.  Therefore, suburban children have the privilege of becoming bilingual, while our urban students lose their home languages and half-learn English.

Local districts in Connecticut have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on “get proficient quick” schemes, like Kevin Clark’s English Language Development (ELD) program, which have failed elsewhere and have been challenged by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.

Proponents of such programs claim that their data shows sharp improvements in English proficiency, but these results are skewed as they use assessments created by the same people that sell the programs and teachers are trained to “teach to the test.” The validity of these programs is highly undermined by assumptions and a lack of alignment to empirical research, or strong theory. Additionally, ELLs are segregated from their English-fluent peers for several hours a day, where they miss the other important academic subjects like Social Studies and Science. These corrupt practices must stop.

Properly educating our youth is beneficial to the entire population. Thank you to CCSU for taking the lead in Connecticut by hosting a much-needed conversation on how to change bilingual education in our state. Over 200 professionals participated. Our children and society depend on this continued valor.