Kids use "language as refuge'

Bilingual education evolves; But critics worry that preserving native tongues leads to new segregation

Jordan Wong, 10, hopes to leave his fifth-grade class at Francis Scott Key School in the Sunset District speaking better Cantonese. His classmate Ho Ming Chin, also 10, wants to speak better English.

The San Francisco school district wants to see Jordan and Ho Ming literate in both languages.

In this age of global markets, that may sound like a good idea. But critics say that for the 18,600 youngsters in The City’s public schools who speak limited English, the new emphasis on maintaining students’ native languages at the same time that they are learning English encourages segregation.

“I see people using language as a refuge, not mixing with other people who don’t speak Chinese,” said Robert Lee, whose daughter is in a fourth-grade bilingual class at Key. “I want my child to be able to mix with all types of children.”

When it comes to languages, the San Francisco schools have their work cut out for them. Fully one-third of the students speak a language other than English at home, with a staggering 79 native languages listed.

The district’s ambitious bilingual program offers instruction in seven of the most widely spoken languages and costs about $ 37 million a year, including teachers’ salaries, mostly from state and federal funds.

To achieve its goal of producing truly bilingual, biliterate graduates, the district is phasing out bilingual classes scattered throughout The City and designating 15 schools at which such programs will be clustered.

By the time the program is implemented, in three to five years, students will have the option of remaining in bilingual classes even after they become proficient in English.

“We’re looking at focusing on language as a strength, rather than a deficit,” said district Superintendent Bill Rojas. He noted that too often, students whose English is limited spent years trying to learn English and lose their native languages, only to find that colleges require them to take courses in a foreign language.

“That makes no sense,” he said. “We’re entering a global economy. We can’t just sell in English anymore. We have to sell in other language markets.”

After 1974, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a San Francisco case that students with limited English skills were entitled to instruction they understood, bilingual classes were launched in school districts across the country.

Most are either English-as-a-second-language classes, in which students are taught in English, or bilingual classes, designed to teach students core subjects, such as history and science, in their native languages while they learn English.

But from the beginning, bilingual education has met with opposition from parents, administrators and teachers. Some believed it kept immigrant students from assimilating, while others said it placed too little importance on English.

As the country has become more multicultural and immigration issues have become more virulent, the debate has intensified.

In Sacramento earlier this month, the state Board of Education was flooded with comment when it announced it would consider relaxing the policy requiring schools to teach kids in their native languages when feasible. The board is set to decide in January.

San Francisco’s new emphasis falls in line not only with current state guidelines but with U.S. Department of Education goals of creating a generation of bilingual professionals. Yet for all its progressiveness, the program has serious flaws:

In some schools, students in the bilingual program spend the entire day together, having little interaction with other students. Federal and district desegregation policies require that bilingual students spend at least 20 percent of their time in the mainstream, but critics say even that is not enough.

Last year, the state Department of Education cited the district for failing to comply with state bilingual standards, mentioning problems including a lack of qualified teachers, a shortage of teaching materials and poor training for teachers and aides.

In partial response, the district hired 44 new bilingual teachers with excellent foreign language skills but little classroom experience. In the shuffle, many teachers with seniority were removed from bilingual classes they had taught for years, causing a great deal of turmoil.

Parents wonder whether the district can afford such an elaborate bilingual program at a time when class size is rising and many basics have been trimmed. They also say students are sometimes placed in bilingual classes for the wrong reasons.

The district is working on all these issues, but Rojas acknowledges that changes sometimes are slow to trickle down to the schools.

“Ending many of these problems is taking longer than we expected,” he said.

Recent studies have come down on both sides of the bilingual approach.

David Ramirez, a bilingual education expert at CSU-Long Beach, reported in 1992 that children who received 40 percent of their daily instruction in their native language learned English faster than children who received most or all of their instruction in English.

Once kids know their native language well, Ramirez said, they draw from that to learn English.

On the other hand, an examination of New York’s bilingual program released in October found that students in English immersion classes earned test scores that promoted them out of the program faster than students in bilingual classes.

About 79 percent of students in ESL left the program within three years, while only 51 percent of students in bilingual programs left in that time.

However, James Lyons, executive director of National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington, D.C., contends that students in ESL may learn English quickly but often sacrifice learning in other subjects in the meantime.

“This study focuses on English acquisition, but it didn’t look at school attendance, the degree of parental involvement, dropout rates, which, from all the literature, favor bilingual education,” he said.

Rojas and other bilingual advocates cite studies such as Ramirez’s to underscore the need to allow students to develop their native languages so they can learn English faster.

But helping students retain their primary language sometimes puts bilingual education at odds with integration goals.

Scant opportunity to mix

At Key, for instance, 139 of the school’s 208 limited-English students are isolated from other students for nearly the full day. The only opportunity they get to interact with students in other classes is during recess, lunch and at school assemblies.

While this technically complies with district policy, teachers and parents argue it is not sufficient, because little mixing occurs on the playground.

In Jordan’s and Ho Ming’s classroom at Key, every student is Asian, most of them of Chinese descent. Some speak English fluently and are there to improve their Cantonese. Others speak little English.

In the morning, teacher Chor Pang leads them as they belt out a litany of Cantonese words, following the Chinese characters in a book as they read. They also get social studies and science lessons in Cantonese. Later in the day, they get math and language arts in English.

Principal Henry Caruso says school-wide activities like “Spirit Day” have been successful in mixing students. But on a recent visit, it was clear that at recess students rarely ventured beyond their classroom cliques.

The same problem occurs at Raphael Weill Elementary, a Western Addition school targeted under the federal court consent decree that governs San Francisco’s desegregation plan. Until this year, Weill had filled the Chinese bilingual classrooms with Chinese and black students, the two largest ethnic groups in the school.

When the district shifted its focus toward maintaining native languages along with building English skills, schools like Weill were told to adjust their classrooms.

As a result, said former Weill parent Christina Rowe, “They took out the majority of all black children and left the bilingual classrooms with 99 percent Asian. The majority of them speak English fluently.

“I have no problem with Chinese bilingual classrooms that are run properly, when the two cultures are sharing with each other,” said Rowe, a parent association president who was so unhappy with the shake-up that she took her two kids out in November and enrolled them at another school. “But this is a consent-decree school, and this should not be happening.”

Weill since has made some changes to give bilingual students more opportunities to mix with English-speaking kids.

Attempts to avoid segregation

Anne Katz, a research associate for Arts, Research and Curriculum, an Oakland consulting firm, says the district needs to examine how it is setting up its language maintenance program.

“There is nothing . . . that says you need to segregate kids,” Katz said. She suggests programs that mix English- and non-English speakers in classes and immerse them in a language other than English.

The district has such programs at West Portal (Chinese), Clarendon
(Japanese) and Buena Vista (Spanish) elementary schools, but these models have not caught on district-wide.

Leonard Flynn Elementary School in the Mission District, with a primarily Latino and African American student body, has found another way to meet the need for both bilingual education and desegregation.

For one or two periods a day, kids with limited English interact with native English-speakers in classes such as math and art, which don’t require much language knowledge.

In Angela Ovalle’s second-grade Spanish bilingual classroom one day, for example, her students met for math with native English-speakers, mostly African Americans , from another class. The students worked in racially mixed groups exploring geometric and color patterns.

At first, Ronald Duffy, 7, and Ruben Aguirre, 7, were hesitant about working together. Aguirre spoke Spanish with a classmate, and Duffy worked by himself. But after a while the two began helping each other and talking in English.

“We’re trying to meet both needs,” Principal Franklin Curtade said. “We’re trying to provide a support system so children flourish in English and Spanish without being segregated all day.”

There is more to the controversy than the issue of segregation. Although the district says the new bilingual emphasis costs nothing extra, some parents question whether there’s room for such a comprehensive program when class sizes are rising and other programs are being cut.

At Key, for example, Chinese bilingual and sheltered English classes, in which instruction is completely in English but children with limited English skills get extra help, outnumber the regular classes.

In the third grade, no regular class is offered. Native English -speaking students are placed either in Chinese bilingual classes, the GATE program for gifted students, or sheltered English classes.

“I don’t think I should have to fight to have my kid in an English -speaking class,” said one Key parent who asked not to be identified because she feared reprisals toward her daughter. “A lot of funding to our school is going toward bilingual programs. We don’t have books in English for our kids. We can barely afford to educate our kids in the basics.”

Other parents say some kids are placed in bilingual classes unnecessarily.

“It’s a facade based on race and not on need,” one parent said.

One couple, who asked not to be identified, say their daughter speaks perfect English but was placed in a bilingual class at Key because one of them is Asian. It wasn’t until they protested strongly that the principal removed the child.

Even those parents who believe there is a need for bilingual education have concerns about the emphasis on preserving a child’s primary language.

“We are very happy about the Chinese bilingual classroom,” said Sue Lee, who has a son in second-grade at Key. “But it seems there is more emphasis on Chinese than English. When they have to compete with English -speakers, I’m afraid they won’t be able to compete.”

Finally, some question whether a district that is already struggling to staff schools with qualified bilingual teachers can expect to implement a top-notch language maintenance program.

Last year, the state evaluated the district’s bilingual program and found that many of the district’s 725 bilingual teachers, most in the Chinese program, were teaching without proper bilingual credentials.

Originally hired on five-year waivers, these teachers had failed the difficult written portion of the exam.

They spoke Chinese fluently, but did not know the written language well, said Ligaya Avenida, director of the district’s bilingual program.

When the state threatened to pull the district’s bilingual funding, the district responded by hiring 44 new teachers, mostly from abroad with little classroom experience but excellent foreign language skills.

The new hires created a lot of shuffling of teacher assignments, pushing many who had seniority out of classrooms they had been running for years.

“Teachers saw themselves being replaced by people being hired off the street without a credential,” said Joan-Marie Shelley, president of United Educators of San Francisco. “They were bitterly resentful.

“The question that remains is who best meets the needs of limited -English-proficient kids? Experienced teachers who are monolingual or a bilingual person who has little or no experience? I believe there’s room for both in the system.”

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