SERIES: BILINGUAL BACKLASH: A closer look at immigrant education. One in an occasional series.

In the wake of a new state policy that gives schools more power to choose how they teach students who do not speak English, the Los Angeles Board of Education is poised to revise its nationally acclaimed bilingual education program.

A majority of school board members say they now favor changes that would emphasize student results instead of teaching method — a significant shift from the district’s longstanding endorsement of native-language instruction as the primary means of teaching non-English-speaking students.

“I am not satisfied that students are mastering English at the rate or to the extent that I would like to see,” said board President Mark Slavkin. “We spend so much time reviewing process and paperwork . . . that same energy should be given to monitoring results.”

Aside from some closely watched pilot projects, the district does little to consistently evaluate the academic progress of its 295,000 non-fluent students.

The state requires that districts report what kinds of classes are offered in bilingual programs, and the rate at which students attain English fluency.

For several years Los Angeles Unified has trailed the state average in the percentage of its students who become fluent in English. In 1994, 4.6% of the children enrolled in Los Angeles Unified’s bilingual program were moved into English-language classes. Statewide, 5.5% of bilingual program students moved into English.

In fact, the “redesignation rate” has declined since 1988, when the district adopted its bilingual bible: the Master Plan for the Education of Limited-English Proficient Students, which mandates the preservation of a child’s native language whenever possible.

In 1987, the year before the plan was adopted, 8.7% of bilingual program students in the district achieved English fluency.

That decline “is of great concern,” said David Tokofsky, the former high school social studies teacher who joined the school board this month, replacing the master plan’s strongest advocate, Leticia Quezada.

Assistant Supt. Jesse Franco, head of the district’s bilingual program, blamed the decline on peripheral factors unrelated to the program’s merit, such as the recent flood of immigrant students who enter school speaking no English and require more time for a transition.

She said, however, that the redesignation rate rose this year — to 5.5% from 4.7% the previous year — after the school board ordered Supt. Sid Thompson to improve the numbers.

Advocates of bilingual education say the speed with which students move into English-language classes should not be the key measure of a program’s success; long-term academic success should be considered as well.

But board member Jeff Horton, who describes himself as a “true believer” in preserving primary language, said redesignation data has gained importance as bilingual education has come under fire.

“When you redesignate, kids really can compete in English, so we should make more of it and stand by it,” Horton said. “I think (that data) should be something by which schools are praised or condemned.”

The district’s 1988 master plan for bilingual education — developed after a series of hearings with teachers, parents and community leaders — was considered an important educational and political landmark for Latinos, because it embraced the use of Spanish in the classroom and focused on meeting the special needs of immigrant children. Then, about one-quarter of the district’s enrollment spoke little or no English.

The 324-page plan called on the district to hire more bilingual teachers and conduct multicultural training for those who spoke only English, and it spelled out the district’s ultimate goal: bilingualism for all students.

“The primary language of (limited-English) students, therefore, must be preserved wherever possible,” the plan said.

Now sentiment on the board has shifted to reflect new fiscal, political and demographic realities, and a majority of board members supports fluency in English as the main goal of the district’s bilingual education policies.

Part of their motivation comes from the stark realities of a burgeoning non-fluent student population. In the seven years since the master plan was adopted, the number of limited-English students has nearly doubled. Now, 46%, or 295,000 of the district’s children, speak little or no English.

And there is no letup in sight: The fall’s kindergarten class is expected to be at least 60% limited-English students.

Among the proposals some board members want to consider in the coming months are shortening the period of time non-fluent students spend in special classes to two or three years, from the four or five years it now commonly takes to move into English, and tying the $5,000 stipend the district pays bilingual teachers to student performance.

The balance has been tipped in favor of change by the addition of two new board members, Tokofsky and former adult school Principal George Kiriyama. Yet even the two members who remain the staunchest supporters of native-language instruction — Horton and East Los Angeles representative Vicky Castro — acknowledge that it’s time to tune up the master plan.

“I’d rather see us do it than have something forced on us,” Horton said. “Bilingual ed is certainly under pressure everywhere and if that didn’t have any kind of reflection within the district it would be amazing.”

The State Board of Education voted this month to loosen the requirements it imposes on districts, in response to mounting public criticism of bilingual programs and the about $400 million California schools spend on them.

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Although exactly how the new policy will affect districts remains unclear, state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin has vowed that her staff will concentrate more on results and hold districts accountable for student progress through a system of financial rewards and punishments.

Several Los Angeles Unified board members seized on the state action as an opportunity to weigh in early on the bilingual master plan review already planned for later this year. That review, which is to be conducted by a committee of parents, teachers and others, will provide recommendations of policy changes for the board to vote on next year.

“The beauty of the new state policy is its flexibility — it’s really not restrictive anymore,” said school board member Julie Korenstein. “I want to find out where the shortcomings are . . . find out where it is working well and where it is not and use that as a model for the rest of the district.”

Compared to the more fundamental changes being contemplated in more conservative school districts — where non-fluent students will probably be immersed in English classes rather than be offered native language instruction
— the adjustments to the status quo in Los Angeles Unified are expected to be minor.

But changes here have additional import because the Los Angeles district has a nationwide reputation as one of the most stalwart backers of native language instruction. And because nearly a quarter of the state’s non-English-speaking students attend Los Angeles Unified schools, the district is viewed as a formidable test site for any approach to bilingual education.

One provision of the district’s master plan that is certain to come under review is its much-heralded practice offering financial incentives to teachers who speak languages other than English.

Los Angeles Unified was among the first districts to offer salary bonuses to teachers in its bilingual program: $5,000 stipends to those who passed competency exams in another language, and $2,500 to English-speaking teachers trained in English-as-a-second-language techniques.

The results have been astonishing — increasing the number of fully credentialed bilingual teachers from 1,700 to 3,550.

But there are still too few bilingual teachers to accommodate the growing number of non-fluent students. And paying those higher salaries has cost the district in other ways.

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Earlier this summer, the school board was stunned by how deeply the stipend had cut into the district’s integration budget — carving away $5 million this year and necessitating the layoffs of dozens of aides who had helped supervise students as they board school buses each day.

Furthermore, a few board members are questioning whether routine renewal of the stipend year after year makes sense in an era of accountability. Tokofsky has suggested that at least the $2,500 stipend paid 1,800 monolingual teachers this year be contingent on evidence of student results. And Barbara Boudreaux, the board’s harshest bilingual education critic, took that suggestion a step further to include all stipend recipients.

“Any teacher who is bilingual, getting a differential, should be able to move those students fast,” she said, adding that she is heartened that public sentiment seems to have caught up with her longtime crusade to overhaul the bilingual program.

“I’ve asked that this be revisited over and over during my time on the board . . . and when I was a principal too,” she said. “I feel very optimistic that our new board will take a look at these issues more carefully.”



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