Bilingual Debate Intensifies

Education: O.C. trend is to "immerse" students in English. Opponents say children will drown intellectually.

ORANGE—A growing number of Orange County school districts are spurning traditional bilingual education in favor of programs that steep students in English–setting a statewide precedent in a divisive classroom debate.

The insurgents say they are reforming a system they contend fails to give students the language skills needed to advance in society.

But bilingual education advocates fear the movement could undo hard-won gains in the struggle to end discrimination against vulnerable students.

Over the past year and a half, three school districts based in Westminster and Anaheim have won state approval for programs that drill more English into non-fluent students in the earliest grades. Out are quotas for credentialed bilingual teachers and classes taught in the students’ native language. In are part-time, bilingual teacher aides and English “immersion.”

In the past, some California districts have experimented with alternatives to what has become the cornerstone of traditional bilingual education: native-language instruction.

But the three in Orange County are the only ones in California so far to capitalize on a 2-year-old policy that allows broad exemptions to the state’s bilingual teaching rules. The state Board of Education, which wrote that policy, granted the waivers.

On Thursday, trustees of a fourth district, Orange Unified, are expected to vote to solicit approval for another English-based teaching plan. Orange–with 28,000 students, more than the other three combined–would be the largest district yet to petition the state board for such a bilingual exemption. Trustees for the school district, which has a sizable Spanish-speaking population, are promising to move forward despite an outcry from parents who support the bilingual program.


Bilingual advocates say it is no surprise that Orange County, known for political conservatism, is a fount of opposition to bilingual education. But the opponents of bilingual education say this is not a political decision, simply one to help students.

“I’ve been called a racist, and that bothers me a great deal,” said Orange Trustee Robert H. Viviano. “I want to see that all these children get a chance at good employment and good opportunities. English is the language of commerce, communication and transportation all over the world. These kids absolutely have to have it.”

Top education officials in Orange say the results of bilingual education over the last 20 years have been disappointing. They say kids with little English aren’t moving fast enough into the mainstream.

Educators say the dissident movement here reflects a gradual shift by the state to grant more local control over the issue.

On April 2, the state Senate Education Committee approved a bill proposed by state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) to give local officials more leeway to choose their own methods for teaching students with limited English. But bilingual education advocates contend the would-be reformers are abandoning kids who most need help.

“If students don’t have access to the core curriculum while they’re learning English, we’re re-creating a system of haves and have-nots, a system perpetuating the lack of achievement for minority students,” said Magaly Lavadenz, director of state and legislative affairs for the California Assn. for Bilingual Education.

Certainly, many Orange County districts have kept the native-language approach, including Santa Ana Unified and Anaheim City school districts. Santa Ana, however, has recently opened so-called “fundamental” schools that stress learning English first.


The revolt here comes as California schools confront an exploding population of children with limited English, most of them Spanish speakers. Last year the state counted 1.3 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade who are not fluent in English, a quarter of the total enrollment of 5.3 million. The numbers have been growing steadily, in absolute and percentage terms, for more than a decade.

Moreover, the state has fewer than half of the estimated 34,400 credentialed bilingual teachers it needs.

For more than 20 years, federal law has ordered schools to take steps to ensure that limited-English students have equal access to school curricula. In that time, California generally has required school districts with high numbers of limited-English students to teach them first in their home languages and later move them into mainstream classes.

That method is backed by a major camp of teaching experts. Their research shows that literacy acquired in the native language can be readily transferred to English. Meanwhile, they contend, students taught in their own languages won’t fall behind in other subject matters like math and social studies.

They argue that the lack of bilingual teachers is no argument to abolish bilingual education. “If there were a shortage of algebra teachers . . . we would not vote to drop algebra,” wrote Stephen Krashen, a USC education professor, in a recent book.

However, another academic camp says that native-language teaching has not proven its worth, and that an English-based curriculum can show positive results.

In 1993, the Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency, reviewed the academic tug of war and concluded that there was no reason to support one camp over the other.


A look inside two Orange County schools found teachers passionately attached to two different methods. There was also common ground: Plenty of English was spoken in the “native language instruction” model and plenty of Spanish–and Vietnamese–in the “English immersion” model.

Jordan Elementary in Orange, which uses the traditional bilingual approach, draws on a heavily Latino population. From kindergarten through third grade, students are divided into Spanish-predominant and English-predominant classes. Despite the two-track system, signs in the front office exhort students and parents to unite: “Together we’re better” and “Unidos superamos.”

Principal Kit Dameron said her Spanish-speaking kids are doing better on literacy tests than the fluent English group. And after the two groups merge, she said, results show little discernible difference in English skills by sixth grade.

Elena Wartburg, a bilingual kindergarten teacher, sprinkles conversational English into her Spanish lessons. On her wall hang pictures of barnyard animals labeled in both languages. One morning, Wartburg knelt on the floor with a circle of youngsters and a tortoise.

“How many feet does it have?” the teacher asked. “Four,” the students answered. Then she switched to Spanish for more difficult topics. What does the tortoise have on its back? “Concha,” the students said (shell). And what does it do when it gets scared? “Se mete adentro,” (it goes inside.)

Wartburg said she is distressed by proposals to dismantle her work.

“Why do they want to go back 20 years?” Wartburg said. “I know this is best for the children. How many years does it take to learn a language? English is not easy.”

Some parents in the district agree. Roberta Andrade, who speaks Spanish with her four children, said they would have been set back if they had been thrust into English-based classes in the primary grades. Now, she said, all four are bilingual. One has graduated and three are in junior and senior high schools.

“When these children begin in school, they don’t know English,” Andrade, a native of Mexico, said in Spanish. “So how are they going to talk with the teacher? They would be traumatized without bilingual education. The district is wrong. They’re denying us our rights–thousands of us, not just me.”


A poster school for the other side is Robert M. Pyles Elementary in Stanton. It is run by Magnolia School District, which won a bilingual exemption last August. The school has won state recognition for rising test scores despite drawing students from low-income neighborhoods.

“We don’t water down the curriculum,” said Principal Elizabeth Nordyke. “We don’t segregate, and we don’t put students on special tracks.”

Though seven of 10 students at Pyles have limited English, teachers conduct classes in English and adorn their rooms mainly with English material. The school also employs 20 part-time aides, 13 fluent in Spanish and seven in Vietnamese.

The aides are not translators. Rather, they give brief tutorials that “preview” and “review” what teachers say in English.

On a recent morning, a group of fifth-graders studied the Revolutionary War with a Spanish-speaking aide. Then they joined the rest of the class for a rap song in the tongue of King George III.

“Well, Washington commanded soldiers so they don’t die./ Cornwallis surrendered Yorktown, said goodbye,” the class sang out.

Afterward, teacher Katie Shovlin said of her Spanish-language group: “They’re starting to transition into English all on their own.”

Here, too, parents appear to back the school’s method. There was virtually no local protest when the district applied for its waiver last year.

Bertha Hernandez, who speaks Spanish at home with her two daughters, said she fretted at first when her daughters began in an English-speaking kindergarten lass.

“I thought they weren’t going to understand anything,” Hernandez, a native of Mexico, said in Spanish. “But they’ve learned a lot. Now the oldest understands a lot of English words, and we help each other read at home.”

Like Magnolia, the Westminster School District uses bilingual teaching aides. Westminster, which won the first waiver in February 1996, faced a severe shortage of Vietnamese bilingual teachers. Last month, Savanna School District, which runs four schools in Anaheim and Buena Park, became the latest to obtain an exemption. The tiny district was not required to use bilingual aides, but a Savanna official said some are on staff. Savanna also relies on Spanish-language materials such as books, tapes and computer disks.

The three districts have 22 months to prove themselves. Then the state board can make their exemptions permanent, or revoke them.

Magnolia Supt. Paul S. Mercier said the district will go all-out to demonstrate its methods work. “The question is, when you believe you’re doing the right thing for kids, are you willing to go to the wall on it?” Mercier said. “Yeah, we are. We think what we’re doing is right.”

Language Barrier

Most of Orange County’s students who are not fluent in English are Spanish speakers. Top non-English languages in county classrooms, spring 1996:

Spanish: 79%

Vietnamese: 11

Korean: 2

Tagalog: 1

Khmer: 1

All other: 6


The number of students in need of bilingual services in Orange County classrooms and statewide increased about 20% from 1992 to 1996:

Year Orange County California

1992 104,163 1,078,705

1993 109,526 1,151,619

1994 115,283 1,215,218

1995 119,816 1,262,982

1996 127,130 1,323,767

Source: California Department of Education; Researched by APRIL JACKSON/Los Angeles Times

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