Somewhere between the black-and-white arguments surrounding Proposition 227 exists a very gray reality for many of the state’s 1.38 million public school students who are not fluent in English.
Initiative sponsor Ron Unz claims that bilingual education fails to teach children English. Yet in Dana Romo’s bilingual class at Washington Elementary in midtown Sacramento, two-thirds of her second- and third-grade students are reading at or above grade level for the district — in both Spanish and English.
Opponents of the initiative argue that ending bilingual education will doom children to failure, stranding them in English-only classrooms where they can neither understand nor communicate. But Kaori Umekita’s limited-English second graders — who speak Hmong, Spanish or Hindi — already receive all of their instruction in English at Meadowview’s John D. Sloat Elementary.
Four of five are doing work on par with their English-speaking peers.
Voters next month will decide whether to virtually ban bilingual education in favor of a one-year “English immersion” program in which students would be taught “overwhelmingly” in English before being moved to mainstream classes.
“You’re talking about at least one-fourth of (California public)
schoolchildren who will be affected. It’s massive in its impact,” said Michael Kirst, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education,
an education think tank. He said the initiative is unprecedented in mandating a single teaching technique.
But the initiative — which continues to garner strong support in polls
— could have far less impact in Sacramento County than in other areas of the state. While Sacramento has the state’s fastest-growing number of English learners and the ninth-largest limited-English population, only a small fraction of such students are in bilingual classes today.
The county’s three largest districts — which educate three-quarters of the county’s limited-English students — count among them only 40 classrooms in which students are taught in both their native language and English.
That means less than 5 percent of the 25,600 limited-English students in the Sacramento City, Elk Grove and San Juan unified districts are in bilingual classes, compared to 30 percent statewide.
Local schools are affected by a statewide shortage of bilingual teachers,
which is exacerbated by a diversity of languages not seen in other regions.
For instance, Spanish speakers — Sacramento County’s largest language group
— make up less than a third of limited English students, compared to 87 percent in Los Angeles County.
El Dorado, Placer and Yolo county schools educate far fewer limited-English students and face much less diversity than in Sacramento. Three-fourths of the 8,500 limited-English students in those counties speak Spanish.
With as many as 68 different languages, Sacramento County’s largest districts rely on English-speaking teachers trained to work with limited-English students and on more than 350 bilingual aides, who can translate for students or explain key concepts.
Whether districts could continue to use such aides if Proposition 227 passes is a major concern for local educators. The initiative does not specifically address aides, saying only that instruction must be “overwhelmingly”
in English — which is not defined.
Bilingual aides “are absolutely, positively essential to the education of a bilingual child,” said Isabel Johnson, who oversees San Juan’s bilingual programs. “I would compare this to a deaf child who needs somebody to sign.”
Generally, aides work with children anywhere from 30 minutes a week to an hour a day. Many cover several schools.
Unz, the millionaire software entrepreneur who authored the initiative,
said recently that he has “mixed feelings” about aides because they are not credentialed teachers and because they may be used as a “crutch”
by students. But he said the initiative wouldn’t prevent their use, so long as they don’t work with children in their native languages most of the day.
However, Sacramento State education Professor Duane Campbell, who is leading the local opposition to the initiative, said he thinks it would lead to the elimination of aides because of its mandate for English instruction.
Elk Grove is one district that relies heavily on bilingual aides.
The district — with nearly 7,600 students who speak more than 60 languages
— has no bilingual program. Officials said they couldn’t implement one because they couldn’t find teachers for their largest language group, which until recently was Vietnamese.
Instead, Elk Grove uses aides and has focused on training teachers to work with English learners in English, emphasizing gestures and pictures.
On a recent day at David Reese Elementary in the Florin area, Kaly Mua covered a math lesson with a sixth-grader named Cindy. The girl had been sent to Mua for help in pre-algebra, but she found that Cindy — whose first language is Hmong — had not yet mastered third-grade skills.
Speaking Hmong, Mua quickly covered several multiplication tables, then moved on to two-digit multiplication. Within half an hour, she was teaching division.
“She can say the numbers in English, but she doesn’t understand the concepts,” Mua said of Cindy. “With primary language, I can show her step-by-step how to do it. . . . She’ll pick it up faster.”
Elizabeth Pinkerton, Elk Grove’s director of state and federal programs,
said once the district’s limited English students become fluent, they score at or above grade level on standardized tests.
But she said the process can take nearly five years, which is in line with research that shows it takes four to seven years for a child to reach fluency. Educators like Pinkerton argue that such students need at least some support in their native language to survive in school.
Unz said he thinks the initiative would allow bilingual teachers or aides to work with students in their native languages up to 30 percent of the time.
“I would think if a district went to 70 to 80 percent English, no one would challenge it,” he said. “Right now, students are only receiving 10 or 20 percent of their instruction in English.”
Not true, say educators like Sacramento City’s Dana Romo, who said her combined second- and third-grade bilingual class now splits its time equally between Spanish and English.
At Washington Elementary, Spanish-speaking kindergarteners start out in classes primarily taught in Spanish, following research indicating that children with a strong base in their primary language make the transition to English more easily. By fourth grade, the majority of the instruction is in English, Romo said.
One recent afternoon, Romo read to the class in English an environmental tale they had first studied in Spanish.
The day ended with students pairing off to read another book in English,
this one about a man whose noisy house keeps him from sleeping. Some tackled the assignment with glee, adding sound effects for the creaking bed and squeaking floor. And while Romo’s direction to write in their journals in English about a similar personal experience drew some groans, most students were able to attempt the assignment.
“As a bilingual teacher, I want students to develop both languages and be articulate in both languages,” Romo said.
Lus Barrios, a Guatemalan immigrant whose son is in Romo’s class, said he wants his children to learn English while maintaining their Spanish so they don’t lose touch with their culture.
“If they talk only English, how will they communicate with me?”
he asked. “My roots are Spanish.”
Linda Ventriglia, who runs Sacramento City Unified’s programs for English learners, said she doesn’t think passage of the initiative will impact her district much. She said parents of children currently in bilingual classrooms have chosen those programs and she expects many will seek a waiver to continue to do so.
The initiative allows parents to seek a waiver if their child knows English,
if the child is over 10, or if the child has “special needs” and school officials agree he or she would be better served by bilingual education than by a year of English immersion.
Schools would be required to provide bilingual classes only if parents of 20 students at the same grade level received waivers.
Until recently, the state required districts to provide bilingual classes unless they could show another method was effective. But less than a third of limited-English students actually are in such classes, largely because districts have received waivers due to the teacher shortage. Another 22 percent receive some support in their native language from aides, with the remainder receiving special services in English or no services at all.
But in early April, the State Board of Education changed its policy to allow local districts to decide which methods to use. A bill passed by the Legislature last week and awaiting the governor’s signature also would provide local control but require districts to prove their approach works.
If the initiative passes, it would take precedence.
But its passage would mean little for the many students already being taught in English — students like Kaori Umekita’s second-graders at John D. Sloat in the Sacramento City district. In 15 years, no parent has asked to have a student transferred from Sloat into a bilingual program.
Five of Umekita’s 17 students are not fluent in English. Donald, Minnie and Xou speak Hmong. Bilawal speaks Hindi and Janet, Spanish. They are separated from the rest of the class only about 20 minutes a day, when they work with Umekita on English comprehension and vocabulary skills.
Holding up colorful flashcards and flipping through a J. Crew catalog,
Umekita reviewed words for different items of clothing during a recent lesson.
The same children who had just completed an assignment on line of symmetry and filled out addition worksheets with the rest of the class didn’t know the word for collar. Or buckle. Or scarf.
“I think it’s really up to the teacher to put in the effort to reach these kids. I think they can be reached,” Umekita said.
Voters will have to decide how without much clear-cut evidence. Each side in the debate discounts the other’s academic research, and the state has no data on the effectiveness of existing programs.
“Because it works for us,” said Pinkerton of Elk Grove’s approach,
“doesn’t mean it’s going to work for someone else.”