RICHMOND — Richmond High is an urban school with a typical urban mission:
teach students enough English to function in society and enough history,
science and math to award them a high school diploma.
That mission holds for students who were born in Richmond or arrived from Nicaragua yesterday; whether the students are illiterate in their own language or are brilliantly bilingual; whether they come to class once a week or they come prepared every day.
But with one week to go before voters decide on Proposition 227, a ballot initiative that seeks to end bilingual programs in California’s public schools,
many undecided voters still want to know: Is bilingual education working?
Did it work for the Richmond High School students who are soon to graduate and enter the work force or college?
Unfortunately the answer is as complicated as the 15 juniors in Isabel Martinez-McAfee’s fifth period bilingual American history class.
It’s as complex as 17-year-old Leslie Vilchis, who arrived from Mexico a month ago and already longs for home; or 17-year-old Romeo Vazquez Sanchez,
who is struggling to learn English because he wants to go to law school one day; or 17-year-old Yadira DeLeon, who at times finds it hard to focus on school with the violence around her.
Richmond High sits on 23rd Street across from boarded-up buildings and a sign offering psychic readings. A woman lounges in an overstuffed green couch on the sidewalk as cars cruise by at high speeds, tail pipes pumping exhaust.
The school facade is a patchwork of paint covering graffiti in mismatched shades of red and orange. A police car idles out front.
Teachers and administrators insist that Richmond High is a safer place than it was in 1991 when two teen-agers were shot across the street and one wounded boy stumbled onto campus, a bullet in his back. But students say rough streets are still a distraction.
“Sometimes you get into problems and you can’t get your mind on school,” said Yadira, looking at her hands. “You’re thinking of what might happen to you. Things happen to the people you’d least expect.”
One of Yadira’s classmates in American History was shot on 23rd Street near the school this spring. The girl is recovering, but hasn’t come back to class.
The violence can be an extra worry for urban kids, especially recent immigrants trying to wade into a new culture. But many educators say violence is down and performance is up among the 1,350 students at Richmond High.
“We have so much diversity. So many cultures. And we have a chance to learn about life outside of Richmond and West County,” said interim principal Frank Fadelli. “The students all share one thing: the pursuit of learning English.”
Martinez-McAfee says some of the juniors who sign up for her bilingual class think it won’t be as demanding as history classes taught in English.
But students learn otherwise.
Last quarter, she gave her fifth period students four A’s, two B’s, four C’s, four D’s and five F’s; she wants them to graduate, but she also wants them to earn their diplomas.
With only a few weeks left of school, she’s preparing students for a final exam.
“Who were some of the dictators in Europe during World War II?”
she asks, looking around the room. Two students shout “Hitler”
“Yes, but who was the dictator in Spain?” Martinez-McAfee asks,
rolling her eyes when nobody responds.
Leslie, the new arrival, shouts, “Francisco Franco!”
“That’s right,” says the teacher in English.
Martinez-McAfee is a passionate believer in bilingual education. But she worries that some of her students will be discouraged in college because they lack English skills.
Of the 15 students in her class, four were born in the United States and several speak enough English to take mainstream classes. But many are uncomfortable speaking English.
They spend most hours speaking Spanish with family members, friends,
teachers and classmates with little exposure to the English language.
Richmond’s 800 limited-English speakers can choose to take all of their classes in English. But many Spanish speakers pick a mixed schedule of classes in Spanish and “sheltered” classes taught in English. Most take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to improve their speaking, reading and writing skills.
To come to the United States, some students left their parents behind,
traveling with an uncle or older cousins. Others joined parents who had already lived and worked here for years. Some go back, disrupting their education along the way.
With hair pulled into a neat pony tail, Leslie explains that she is upset by the lack of respect shown by students for some of Richmond High’s teachers and is worried that the curriculum won’t be challenging.
She doesn’t particularly like living in the United States and plans to return to Mexico to study pharmacology after graduation. She is glad her classes are in Spanish because she doesn’t want to miss any content and she isn’t particularly interested in learning English.
Unlike Leslie, Romeo has a pressing reason to learn English. Born in Texas, he grew up in Mexico before coming to the United States two years ago. His father works in construction and his mother cares for an elderly woman.
Romeo plans to get his two-year degree from Contra Costa College and then attend a four-year university in preparation for law school.
“I would rather live in Mexico where I have my cousins and my grandparents,”
Romeo says. “But I’m not going back.”
Is it working?
Teacher Kal Phan is a Richmond High graduate who is completing his master’s degree at Cal State Hayward. His thesis is about the performance of limited English speakers at the school.
Phan used 1998 school statistics to determine that most Limited English Proficiency, or LEP, students in bilingual and sheltered classes have higher grade point averages than Richmond high students, on average. And students who have “graduated” to full English proficiency achieve higher GPAs than any other group.
Phan said the higher GPAs among the limited English speakers may result from teachers who give away good grades. But he said they may also result from smaller bilingual and sheltered classes that make for a better learning environment.
District statistics on the 1997 Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, a national exam given in English, show that freshman LEP students scored very poorly
— in the ninth percentile — in reading while the class average scored in the 15th percentile.
But students who had been through the bilingual program or arrived at the school already fluent in English and another language scored higher
— in the 32nd percentile in reading.
Despite the encouraging test scores at Richmond High, voters statewide are frustrated with the poor academic achievement and limited English skills of immigrant children. That discontent has led to widespread support for Prop. 227 as indicated in recent polls — support that crosses ethnic lines.
A parent’s- view:
Several blocks from Richmond High in a neighborhood of modest homes and kept lawns, Guadalupe Ochoa tells why she wants her oldest child, Lissandra,
to be fluent in two languages.
“I believe she needs to know English,” said Ochoa, in an elegant Spanish. “She needs to go to college, of course. But she also needs to learn her own language because one day, when she travels to Mexico, it will be important.”
Ochoa, a cafeteria worker at Dover Elementary school in Richmond, said she supports bilingual education and Prop. 227 is simply “injusto.”
It’s unjust, she says.
Ochoa can vote on Prop. 227. But like many immigrant parents, her husband cannot. He is a permanent legal resident, but not yet a citizen.
If Prop. 227 passes, at least 20 parents would have to provide waivers to enroll students in a bilingual class. Some Richmond High parents — who already have the option of an English curriculum — say signing a waiver won’t be a problem.
Andrea Lampros covers education and Proposition 227. You can reach her at 925-943-8155 or P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.