If Ron Unz had his way, all of California first-grade classrooms would someday look much like Betsy Lew’s.
In Room 22 at O.B. Whaley Elementary School in San Jose, Lew teaches her 20 students in English — even the 14 who came to her class this year speaking little or no English.
“I look at it this way. This is the way I was taught English,”
says Lew, who was born in Canton, China, but schooled in Sacramento. “I went to kindergarten where everyone spoke English, and you just learned to communicate.”
For more than two decades, California has urged schools to educate children first in their native language, whether it is Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or Hmong. The theory is that this allows students to understand what is happening in the classroom as they become literate in English.
But a majority of schools continue to educate their students mostly in English. Although some districts are philosophically opposed to bilingual education, others cannot find enough bilingual teachers to work with the soaring number of students with inadequate English skills.
Upward spike of Asians
Evergreen School District in East San Jose dropped its bilingual program in the 1980s when it could no longer hire enough qualified teachers to keep pace with its growing immigrant population. Today, nearly a third of its 11,000 students are not fluent in English. Although Vietnamese and Spanish are the most common languages, students also come to school speaking Chinese,
Tagalog, Khmer and Punjabi, among others.
“In the late ’80s, there was a real spike upward in the number of Vietnamese and other Asians,” said Assistant Superintendent Phyllis Lindstrom. “Things were beginning to look a lot different.”
With special permission from the state, Evergreen turned to a program that educates students almost entirely in English from the first day of school. Although they still receive some help in their home language, students are never segregated by language.
To the casual observer, the strategy is barely discernible from regular English-language classes. But there are subtle differences.
Betsy Lew’s first-grade class at O.B. Whaley School, composed of children who speak a variety of languages at home, is taught mostly in English. Here,
the teacher — a native of China who learned English in Sacramento — gestures to her students as she reads them a story. Lew now relies more on repetition,
hand signals and other visual cues to get students to comprehend what is happening. This was especially important last year, when she taught kindergarten.
“Maybe three spoke any significant amount of English at home,”
Lew said. “So you have to repeat things several times. It took a couple of months.”
But even a year later, when most of her first-grade students have a grasp of English, Lew still uses both visual and sound cues to get students learning and thinking about new words and concepts.
A weather song
On one recent morning the children practiced new words by singing a weather song. To help build English vocabulary and grammar, Lew has covered nearly every available inch of class space with words. A list of nouns hangs on one wall, a list of verbs on another. A neatly hand printed list of words containing sounds such as “th” and “ch” hangs >from the ceiling. Little white cards identify objects such as the clock, the sink and a chair.
“You have to know how to teach them more visually now, because there is such a mix of languages,” Lew said. “Even in my poems, I add a lot of pictures, because they don’t know what a lot of the words are.”
Programs that immerse children in English are often controversial. Unz’s ballot initiative, which would replace most bilingual education with one-year
“sheltered English immersion” classes, has been roundly criticized by many educators. And the Orange Unified School District, facing a lawsuit from civil rights groups and parents, needed permission >from a federal judge this year to run its English immersion program, at least until the case is resolved by the state Supreme Court.
Critics say English immersion programs handicap students by ignoring language skills they bring to school and placing them in an incomprehensible environment.
Rosalina Salinas, past-president of California Association for Bilingual Education, says she worries about the non-English speaking child who has spent the first years of life learning a language, only to be thrust into an English-only classroom.
“Think about coming into a situation where all that (knowledge)
is no longer useful to you,” Salinas said.
‘I think we do well’
Whaley Principal Jennie Collett has heard that argument many times. While she agrees that bilingual classes can work, she says the reality is many students come to school with native language skills so weak, there is little to build upon.
“A lot of children come from homes where the Spanish is broken,”
Collett said, “and it doesn’t work to build on that. What we do is immerse them in English, and it seems to work for them. If they come in speaking no English, by the end of kindergarten, they are doing well enough to function at grade level. I think we do well.”
The research is mixed.
Aguirre International in San Mateo spent eight years studying English immersion and two types of bilingual programs for the U.S. Department of Education. In the widely cited study, known as “The Ramirez Report,”
researchers reported that, through the third grade, English language skills and student achievement were comparable for all three types of programs.
In the long run, though, students demonstrated stronger academic and English language skills in the “late-exit” bilingual programs, where children don’t move to mostly English instruction until sixth grade.
“All things being equal, the research would say that (immersion students) suffer a slight disadvantage in learning academic content,”
said Stanford University Professor Kenji Hakuta. ‘And even though they are in English-only classes, they are probably not learning English better than in a bilingual program.”
But a New York City Schools study published in 1994 contradicts that.
It found that students in English-language classrooms posted better reading and math scores than students in native-language programs.
An equal approach
Evergreen officials say their program differs from many immersion programs because it includes some native language instruction and places equal importance on learning subject matter and learning English.
Although the vast majority of instruction is in English, a network of
“primary language assistants” works with students in their native language to try to bridge any instructional gaps. Aides work with students in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish, usually for about 30 minutes a day.
Other aides — who speak only English — also work with students. In one instance, an aide worked with five students who Lew felt needed extra help. With the students seated around a table on tiny green chairs, the aide helped them build their English vocabulary by examining concepts, such as “over” and “under.”
“Let’s see if Jennifer can fit under the table,” she said,
instructing the girl to crawl under the table. “There she is: under the table.”
Evergreen officials say that extra support helps the district achieve its two main goals: making students quickly literate in English — usually in three to five years — and getting them to succeed academically.
Anywhere from 12 percent to 20 percent of Evergreen’s “limited-English proficient” students are reclassified as fluent in English each year,
well above the state average of 6.7 percent. And those who do complete the program tend to do as well, if not better, on standardized tests than the district as a whole, according to district records.
Evergreen tracks the achievement of all students who complete its program.
In 1996, Spanish-speaking students scored just below the national average on the Stanford Achievement Test, the district’s standardized reading exam.
All other language groups exceeded the national average.
In math, all language groups tested above the 50th percentile — or the national average, or the point where half the students score higher and half score lower.
‘If they are getting kids up to the 50th percentile, then they really are doing a good job, because most programs don’t get anywhere near that,”
said Duane Campbell, professor of bilingual education at California State University-Sacramento.
Evergreen officials say the combination of properly trained teachers
— all instructors must learn about the various stages of language acquisition
— and aides who can speak the students’ languages, helps students understand what is happening in the classroom.
Within weeks after starting school, many kindergartners are starting to converse in English, singing songs and joking with their playmates. By the second month of first grade, Lew’s students have already covered classroom walls with writing assignments.
Gabriela Ayala, 6, is a testament to how quickly some students adapt.
When she started kindergarten last year, “Gabby” barely spoke a word of English.
Now, just over a year later, she has a strong grasp of conversational English and is one of the top students in Lew’s class.
“She writes in sentences, she knows capital letters and punctuation,
and she can read with expression, which is sometimes hard for kids this age,” Lew said.
Although Spanish is her family’s primary language, Gabby regularly practices English with her parents and siblings, said her mother, Alba, who immigrated from El Salvador 15 years ago.
“I always choose English-only classes,” Ayala said. “At first, I know they will have a hard time at school. But now my Gabby is doing so well, I’m so proud of her.”
But even ardent supporters of English-language programs say the strategy takes time to pay off.
Evergreen officials say it takes three to five years for most of their students to acquire the “academic” English needed to understand complex concepts.
District officials concede their program has drawbacks. The most obvious is that many students often never develop fluency in their native language.
And many parents cannot help their own children with their homework because it is in English.
Evergreen principals and teachers try to stimulate parent involvement by stocking foreign language books in school libraries, and encouraging parents to read to their children in their native language.
“The ideal would be every student leaves the district totally bi-literate,”
Lindstrom said. “That would be wonderful. Our goal is to have every student acquire English as quickly as possible and excel academically, and we do that. It may not be an ideal. But it’s what works for us.”