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Juliet V. Garcia and Obama's Transition Team


President-elect Barack Obama's transition team includes at least one person—Juliet V. Garcia, the president of the University of Texas-Brownsville—who must know quite a lot about English-language learners. Her university is located on the bank of the Rio Grande River, which defines the U.S.-Mexico border, and enrolls a great number of ELLs or former ELLs. Before she became president of UT-Brownsville in 1992, she was president of Texas Southmost College, a community college in Brownsville, for six years. Ms. Garcia, a Mexican-American, has a Ph.D. in communications and linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. The Brownsville Herald reported on Nov. 6 that Ms. Garcia had been selected for the team.

I set foot on the UT-Brownsville campus at the end of last month when I interviewed Miguel Angel Escotet, the dean of the school of education there, for a story that is scheduled to be published in the next issue of Education Week. Mr. Escotet said then that Ms. Garcia has been visionary in expanding the work of the institution.

Teacher preparation is an important program at the University of Texas-Brownsville. Mr. Escotet told me the university provides 75 percent of the teachers for the local Brownsville Independent School District. Forty-three percent of the district's 49,000 students are English-language learners. Most teacher candidates at UT-Brownsville are bilingual in English and Spanish, and they graduate with a bilingual certification, Mr. Escotet said.

I don't know how much Ms. Garcia has worked directly with educating ELLs or the teacher-preparation program at her university. But she certainly has been surrounded in her work by second-language learners for at least two decades.

There's no guarantee that because Ms. Garcia is on the president-elect's transition team that she will land a job in his administration. But the selection indicates that someone is advising Mr. Obama right now who knows something about language issues in education.


Being surrounded by ESOL students is not guarantee to knowing about second language acquisition and actually being able to teach education students how to work with them. You'd be surprised at how little people know about learning a language even when they are former students themselves. Of course there is experiential knowledge but we don't teach students some fundamentals about language acquisition while we are teaching them English. We do a poor job of being able to communicate second language acquisition to people because ESOL teacher who are certified don't exist in most states (many only have endorsements) and the professors who research the field are few and far between. We are outnumbered and therefore silenced in the general community.
In books about immigrants, ESOL teachers tend to not exist and old stereotypes exist, such as placing students in age inappropriate grades and classes to "help" them learn the language better, and encouraging students to not speak their native language at home or greatly reduce it in order to learn English. In a book about a Chinese girl who is adopted by an American family I recently bought for my class, written by an author who loves to write about immigrants in her fiction, an author has a girl tell the Chinese girl not to speak Chinese so much to learn English. That is one of the stereotypes in the mainstream culture that hurts these students.
I don't know about about this person in the transition team but don't count the fact she works in an area where many ESOL students are a reason to think she may know about ESOL itself. Another question to ask is how successful those students are in that area. If they are not very successful, then something is wrong other than the fact the students are not proficient in English.

Correct me if I'm wrong... isn't the greatest determining factor the student's desire to learn English? I know dozens, if not hundreds, of kids who have been in the States for over 10 years and have still not become proficient in the language of instruction. On the other hand, I know many who have made the transition in from 4 to 6 years.

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