Feb. 23, 2006 – An Education, Culture, and Youth Committee meeting held at the Legislative Conference Room on St. Croix was interrupted early Thursday morning by the sounds of protesting from parents of bilingual students at the Charles H. Emanuel School.
"The parents said they were unhappy because their children aren't receiving bilingual education at the school," said Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, committee chairman, Thursday afternoon.
Malone said according to Charles H. Emanuel Principal Basil Williams, there has been a shortage of bilingual teachers at the school since the beginning of the year.
Malone said, "To combat this problem, Williams explained that the administration has combined some of the classes so the students will continue to have bilingual education at the school."
During the committee meeting, Williams said that while funding for bilingual teachers is available, there are no individuals applying for vacant teaching positions within the public school system.
"We do need short- and long-term bilingual teachers," he said, "However, my best estimate is that we won't be able to have more teachers until the next school year, and even then, we will only have enough to teach classes from the kindergarten through third-grade levels. After that, we'll have to look into getting more teachers to teach the fourth- through sixth-graders."
Williams added that he recently met with parents of bilingual students at the school, and told them the administration would be combining the third- and fifth-grade classes. Williams said that at the time, the parents expressed no objections to the idea.
However, during the meeting, one resident said the school's administration acted without consent from the parents. "We are experiencing a great deal of problems at Charles H. Emanuel," said Nilda Rivera, a parent of Spanish-speaking students at the school. "And when you combine bilingual education with other classes then you are depriving our children from obtaining an adequate education."
Rivera said she understands there is a shortage of teachers, she recently heard that the Education Department hired 32 foreign teachers to teach math and special education at various public schools in the territory. "These teachers are being brought in with three-year visas, and they come all the way from the Philippines, Bulgaria, Cameron and Trinidad," she said.
"Why, then, can't the administration bring in teachers from Spain, and other Latin countries, or even the Dominican Republic, since the growing number of Hispanic children are coming from this ethnic group."
Rivera suggested that the Education Department work in conjunction with universities in Puerto Rico and New York to create a local program to train residents in bilingual education.
"We have also heard that there is no funding for bilingual teachers or programs," Rivera continued. "Yet, the Education Department fails to use the more than $2 million in federal funds which recently reverted back to the U.S. Treasury. Part of these funds could have been used for the bilingual programs and to further train our bilingual teachers.
"Now we understand that Education Commissioner Noreen Michael is asking for $10 million from our local funds to be used to operate federally funded programs within the department. This tells us that someone is sleeping on the job," Rivera said, "and if that is so, then they should be sent home to continue taking their nap."
Rivera's statements enflamed Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville, who said Hispanic residents in the territory are being unfairly discriminated against. "There has been, for a long time, an increasing level of prejudice against minorities in this community," he said. "And there has been, in particular, a lot of issues arising from our Hispanic population – the time has come for us to stand up and say something."
Later in the meeting, Figueroa-Serville asked Michael whether a lack of funding has kept the department from attracting bilingual teachers to the territory.
"Compensation is not the problem," Michael responded. "The challenge we face is that when our teachers retire, we are unable to find replacements for them. What's happening to a large extent is that there are fewer and fewer individuals going into these teaching areas when they go to college, so there is no new pool of professionals to choose from when the older teachers retire."
Michael said Education is currently working on recruiting bilingual teachers from Santo-Domingo and other Spanish-speaking islands, and is setting up a program in local high schools to train students to become teachers.
Present at Thursday's meeting were Sens. Malone, Figueroa-Serville, Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Ronald E. Russell.
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