Sarah Ruden
Hadassah Educators Council Steering Committee

Henrietta Szold and the History of Multilingual Education

Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.
Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.
Henrietta Szold portrait courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
Artwork provided by Hadassah.

Many people know Henrietta Szold as the person who founded Hadassah in 1912, but I’m not sure as many people know how she started out.

Szold was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1860. In the 1880s, Jews who were facing antisemitism and who didn’t have many economic opportunities in Eastern Europe started to immigrate to America. When she saw the struggles that the new immigrants faced, she decided to take action. In 1889, she opened the first American night school in Baltimore to teach English and vocational skills to immigrants.

Szold was at the beginning of multilingual education in America.

Over the years, multilingual education has become a contentious issue in the United States. What should the language of instruction be? What is the best way to teach English? Should schools teach only in English or in other languages as well? There have been important laws and court cases that have impacted multilingual education.

The first Bilingual Education Act wasn’t passed by Congress until 1968, and it gave power to the states to decide how to design English language programs. In 1974, Chinese parents in California started a court case called Lau v. Nichols. The parents argued that their children were not getting an education equal to their peers’ because their children could not understand English. The schools said that the students were getting an equal education because classrooms were integrated, and everyone was getting the same instruction.

The court sided with the Laus ruling that the students were not, in fact, getting an equal or meaningful education because no language services were being provided to allow the Chinese students to access the content of instruction.

After this court case, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights came up with the Lau Remedies (1975) to help determine what services a school must provide. Unfortunately, many states have passed so-called English-Only Laws that still exist today. These laws dictate that teachers must teach only in English without the use of other languages. As a result, students’ native languages are often seen as inferior to English even though research shows that using a student’s native language for instruction is more successful than just teaching in English.

Luckily, Maryland, where I live, is not one of the states that has an English-Only Law in place.

Today, I am teaching English to immigrants in Maryland just like Henrietta Szold did all those years ago. I teach students English, but I also try to use their native languages as a support. I have multilingual books in my classroom, and I label items in my classroom in multiple languages. My students today come from many different countries and speak a variety of languages, such as Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole.

I work hard to build relationships with my students and their parents because I want my students to be successful in school. As an experienced educator who sits on the Hadassah Educators Council, I also make it a priority to connect with other teachers, advocate for my students’ rights, and continue to learn and grow as an educator.

Sarah Ruden is a member of Hadassah’s Neshama Chapter of Greater Washington in Maryland and sits on the Hadassah Educators Council, whose members bring their professional expertise to bear on their work with Hadassah.

About the Author
Sarah Ruden is a life member of Hadassah and is on the Steering Committee for the Hadassah Educators Council. Sarah also participates in the Hadassah EVOLVE Forum for Women Under 50. She attended Penn State University for her undergraduate education and earned a Bachelor's in Elementary Education. She also attended Vanderbilt University and earned her Reading/ESL Master's in Education. Sarah has worked for seven plus years as a full-time teacher and many years as a tutor. Her goal is to help students make progress academically regardless of their background and the level at which they start.
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