Over the last few weeks, the dialogue concerning the Salem Public Schools and its problems has focused largely on "socioeconomic" issues.
Not being a sociologist or an economist, I spent some time online to get a better grasp of what the term actually means.
Using this term in reference to our school system's problems and the proposed solutions would seem to be a direct reference to the ratio of the haves to have-nots within the individual schools. This is a legitimate usage, but it does not really go far enough in addressing what is a major part of the Salem education equation.
The problem is largely, but not solely one of language. For some reason, we can't seem to come right out and say it. There are far too many students, and parents who are failing to become proficient in English. When the MCAS is written in one language and you speak another language, test scores are sure to be affected.
My Memere (paternal grandmother) came to Salem from northern New Brunswick in Canada as a young girl. As was common at the time, she married young and began to raise a family. Although French was her primary language, she learned to speak English and tried her best to use it within the household as she raised her 12 children.
Most of my cousins attended St. Joseph's School and learned French as a part of their daily studies. My sisters and I were schooled at St. Mary's School of the Immaculate Conception Parish. French was not part of our curriculum, but there were some language requirements in the higher grades to include Latin.
I have vague memories of me trying to impress Memere with my newly learned French counting. She was not impressed at all and encouraged me in her own unique, old-school way not to do so again. Years later, my father would explain that she was worried that my learning French would put me at a disadvantage. Her concern, while misguided, was legitimate. English was, and is the language of the land.
I spent a few years in Japan in my early military years. All of these years later I can still count in Japanese; ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku shichi. It was a tough language to learn, and I never became conversational, but I tried hard and learned to converse in simple terms. Three years in Germany was a different experience. I became conversational very quickly and used the language as often as possible. As a guest in their countries, both the military and I felt that it was important to at least make an effort to learn the native language.
If you choose to live in a country where your native tongue is not the primary language, then you should do as my grandmother did. Learn the language and ensure that your children are given every opportunity to do the same. This does not mean you should sacrifice your own language and heritage. We should all strive to remember and honor where we came from and how we got here. Salem's landscape is dotted with reminders of our diverse population.
It is imperative that young students in Salem who do not speak English be given every opportunity at the youngest age possible to learn the language. This effort needs to begin at home with the parents. We should not do this at the expense of their native language, nor should we do it in setting of bilingual instruction. We should never make the learning of any one particular language other than English mandatory.
There are many languages native to this city of ours. Polish, Italian, French, Russian, and Greek to name a few. Spanish is another on that long and proud list. Students in the grammar schools should be given some instruction in all of them in the elementary years. One language a year at a basic level may be adequate. Once they get to high school they can choose one from the other for their primary study.
English may be the language of the land, but being able to speak Spanish would certainly benefit any young job applicant. I would say that ten years from now those able to speak any of the main Asian languages would have a tremendous advantage.
Parents, of any socioeconomic background should also strive to set an example for their children. When I was in Japan and in Germany, I could order in a restaurant, say hello, ask directions, and at least attempt full conversation using the native language. If a parent has been in this country for more than a year and can't communicate with their child's teacher what kind of example is being set?
True leadership is needed at the city and at the community level in order to provide Salem students with the tools for success. Lets drop the buzzwords, posturing, and verbal judo and get down to the task of leading them into a clearly communicated future.