Hammond residents decry cuts to bilingual program

March 13, 2012

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Parents of bilingual students in Hammond, Ind., are upset over possible cuts to the bilingual education program. Dozens of them demanded answers during a Hammond school board meeting Monday night at the school district’s headquarters.

Hammond resident Irene Mendoza came with at least one hundred other parents. She knows the School City of Hammond wants to cut its budget, and she made the case that the bilingual department should be spared.

“Our children and Latino teachers are all under attack. The people who understand our culture are the ones that being attack,” Mendoza said. “They are not being promoted but are being demeaned and having their salaries cut.”

Superintendent Walter Watkins said the district is indeed examining salaries, but there’s no discrimination going on.

“We’re looking at salaries of not only just the aids but teachers and administrators. Theirs is nothing anti-Hispanic or anti-bilingual,” Watkins said. “It’s an issue we’re looking at across the district.”

Watkins said Indiana’s State Board of Accounts has audited Hammond schools’ spending. That report’s expected to become public in a few weeks.

The Hammond Public Schools have about 13,200 students, of which 40 percent are Latino.

The protesting parents came down especially hard on Hammond School Board member Cindy Murphy. Some called for her resignation, accusing her of supporting the reduction of salaries of Latino teacher aids in the bilingual program. Some parents labeled her as insulting to Latino/bilingual students.

Murphy said she is neither anti-bilingual nor anti-Latino.

“They categorize me as racist,” Murphy said following the meeting. “Yo hablo espanol (I speak Spanish).”

She said she fully supports the bilingual program and would like to expand it.

“My dream for the students here in Hammond is for them to be fluent in at least two languages,” Murphy said.

Murphy said there seems to be a miscommunication about the issues facing the school district.

Fellow Hammond school board member George Janiec said the board of accounts audit will likely put Hammond’s school system in a bad light. He added that one result of the audit may be stricter oversight of departments — including the bilingual department.

Still, Julie Contreras, head of the Indiana Latino Agenda, is leading a campaign called “Operation Save the Bilingual Education Program.” She claims Hammond schools have threatened to remove the bilingual education program through salary cuts.

Contreras, a resident of suburban Illinois, has asked Tony Bennett, Indiana’s Superintendent for Public Education, to intervene.

Watkins says the bilingual program is a federally funded program that is not subject to discontinuation.

Some bilingual aids could see their salaries slashed by 50 percent, with aids possible getting paid about $8 an hour.

Janiec said such positions are part-time and are not licensed teaching positions.