Latinos divided over merits of dual-language instruction

It’s only about 100 miles between the two schools on Interstate 5. But when it comes to bilingual education, they are worlds apart.

Taft Elementary School in Santa Ana is the home of Gloria Matta Tuchman, a first-grade teacher. She and businessman Ron Unz are co-leaders of an initiative that seeks to replace bilingual education with a one-year program, taught predominantly in English, that Taft has used for years.

Los Altos Elementary School on Otay Mesa is the home of Edward “Lalo” Aceves, a principal. He scrapped an English-immersion program four years ago, replacing it with a bilingual program that teaches children in their native languages for four to seven years as they learn English.

The two educators and their schools illustrate how Latinos, who once pushed for bilingual education as a civil right, are now deeply divided over the question of whether young students who speak little or no English should be taught for years in Spanish or be prodded to learn English quickly.

“It’s nothing new,” Tuchman said of her method. “It isn’t revolutionary. It isn’t magic. It’s just good sense and good teaching.”

The teachers at Taft use English, backed by pictures and gestures, while teaching young students whose skills in English are limited. Teachers sometimes use a few words in the students’ native language. The students are usually transferred to regular mainstream classes after a year.

In bilingual education, students are taught in their native language and gradually introduced to English. They often remain in bilingual education four to seven years before all of their classes are presented in English.

“It works,” said Aceves. “The kids are confident about the work. They are proud of their heritage. We are not trying to fragment our society. We are trying to build this country.”

While talking about the educational merit of their methods, Tuchman and Aceves can both cite academic research and anecdotes about the successes of individual students. But the lack of conclusive evidence makes the debate over bilingual education a difficult one.

Latinos may be only about 15 percent of the voters who will decide the fate of the initiative, headed for the ballot in June. Yet the direct impact of bilingual education falls mainly on Latinos, whose mass migration has changed the face of California.

Latinos moved past whites this year to become the largest racial group in California’s public schools — about 2.2 million, or nearly 40 percent of the 5.6 million students in kindergarten through high school.

Half of the Latino students speak little or no English and are classified,
in the language of the state bureaucracy, as limited English proficient.
As a result, Latinos are about 80 percent of the 1.4 million California students who are eligible for bilingual education.

California schools have to deal with more than just Spanish-speaking children. The San Diego Unified School District, for instance, must deal with students who speak about 50 different languages. But the vast majority of limited-English students are those who speak Spanish.

Tale of two schools

Reaction to the Latino migration went in dramatically different directions at Taft Elementary, located in the heart of conservative Orange County,
and Los Altos Elementary, where Tijuana’s seaside bull ring can be seen from the schoolyard.

“They kept saying, ‘They are coming, they are coming,’ ” recalled Taft’s Tuchman. “I said, ‘They are already here, and we better have something in place before the state education department comes down here and tells us what to do.’ “

A former principal at Taft wanted to switch from the one-year English program, known as sheltered immersion, to bilingual education in 1985. Tuchman opposed the change and was reprimanded for resisting implementation of the new policy, which ended up being dropped after parents protested.

Tuchman moved on from the victory at her school. As a member of the board of the nearby Tustin Unified School District, she helped get a federal grant for an alternative to bilingual education in 1987, when the district had only 200 children with limited English skills.

Now the Tustin district has more than 4,000 children with limited English skills. All of them go through sheltered immersion programs such as the ones Tuchman and her colleagues use at Taft in the Santa Ana Unified School District.

Tuchman took her fight against bilingual education to Sacramento in 1987,
testifying against the renewal of the state bilingual education law.

“I personally feel that bilingual education has failed a whole generation of Hispanic children, not only in this state but in the whole country,”
said Tuchman, who ran unsuccessfully for state superintendent of public instruction in 1994.

“They are not learning English. They are not staying in school.
They are not graduating from high school.”

But while Taft and Tustin were going one way, most of the public schools in California have been going the other. After Aceves came to Los Altos,
he installed a bilingual education program in 1993 to replace what he says was a failed English immersion plan modeled after a program in Texas.

Just as Tuchman has helped spread English immersion, Aceves has done the same for bilingual education. He helped set up bilingual programs at three other schools in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, where he has worked for 22 years.

“Our program is to build biliteracy,” said Aceves, who recently received a doctorate from SDSU in bilingual education. “That is our end product.”

Los Altos is not yet teaching Spanish or another second language to students who already speak English and make up about 55 percent of the 500-member student body. But that could be on the way.

The Chula Vista district board not only backs bilingual education, but passed a resolution in October supporting “multiliteracy” and the teaching of a second language to children who speak English.

Chula Vista, the largest elementary district in the state with 21,400 students, has been undergoing a rapid transformation. Two-thirds of the students are minorities, and a third of them speak limited English.

When Aceves arrived at Los Altos, all of the teachers were white. Now many of the 31 teachers are minorities and nearly half of the total staff provide instruction in Spanish. As Latinos take jobs once held by whites,
Aceves bluntly acknowledged that there may be some underground resentment among the staff.

“If I were to leave tomorrow, they would probably burn a cross in front of the school,” he joked.

Learning in two languages

Step inside the Los Altos school, located on a low hill in San Diego overlooking Tijuana, and you find what Aceves calls a “late-exit transitional”
bilingual education program.

Students with limited English, nearly half of the total enrollment, receive most of their instruction from teachers who speak Spanish and use Spanish language textbooks.

But starting in kindergarten, when they mix with English-speaking children,
the students are gradually taught in English for part of the day.

By the fourth grade, a student’s daily rotation among subjects includes 1-1/2 to two hours of instruction in English. It usually takes four to seven years before students are receiving all of their instruction in English.

After kindergarten, students are tested, and their parents are asked to decide whether the child should take full or modified bilingual programs or English only.

Like a doctor advising a patient, Aceves said, the school recommends to parents that their children take the bilingual program. He said only four or five a year opt for English only.

Aceves is a critic of the sheltered immersion programs. Such programs would be imposed on all students by the initiative — unless parents can convince school officials there is the need for a waiver for their child.

He said young students who are taught to speak English can quickly seem to become fluent, but have trouble thinking in their new language later on. He said the problem often begins to appear at about the third grade.

“Kids can fool you,” said Aceves. “But when you start getting into the academics, it’s more difficult to think at a second level.”

When Los Altos experimented with English immersion programs from 1991 to 1993, reading test scores showed no improvement and math scores dropped slightly.

But since the bilingual program began in 1993, reading and math scores at Los Altos have improved, particularly for students taking a test in Spanish known as the Aprenda.

The man who was the district assistant superintendent for instruction when Los Altos switched back to bilingual education said there were several reasons for the change.

“I think it’s fair to say that the largest push came from a compliance mandate from the state,” said Lowell Billings, now the district business manager. “I am also aware there were concerns about not the immediate impact, but the long-term impact of cognitive disorders and delays.”

Aceves said a teacher recently remarked that a young student named Frankie had quickly become fluent in English, perhaps making him ready to leave the bilingual program. Aceves said the youth needed more time.

“Tuchman may have a bunch of Frankies, who are sharp kids,”
said Aceves. “They will talk to you in either language.”

Arguments for immersion

Tuchman rolled her eyes and smiled when asked if there was evidence that students at Taft, after emerging from the immersion program, began to encounter learning difficulties around the third grade.

“We monitor their progress,” said Tuchman. “We get the parents involved. I don’t see that their minds are declining.”

The Taft principal, Bill Hart, said he sees no evidence that problems often begin developing in subsequent grades. But if they do, he said, the school can offer support in the native language after students leave the immersion program.

Hart does not take sides in the dispute over bilingual education. In his view, the key is dedicated teachers, who can make either immersion or bilingual education work if they strongly believe in it.

“All this stuff is highly emotional,” said Hart. “All you are getting really is opinion. There are no strong numbers pointing to one being better than the other.”

Taft has some of the top test scores in its district, and at times a waiting list of parents who want to enroll their children. Hart gives all the credit to a skillful group of teachers in the school with 1,200 students,
about 75 percent Latino.

Tuchman is part of a close-knit group of teachers who have been at Taft for years. The teachers not only rejected bilingual education — and received a state waiver to embark on the English immersion program — but also the
“whole language” method of teaching reading pushed by the state a decade ago.

Hart said the teachers concluded after a few months that the use of interesting stories to capture the attention of students was not enough. The teachers asked to switch back to phonics-based instruction and sounding out words.

Even the Taft school building bears the stamp of the strong-willed teachers.
At their request, the interior of the building is a large open space without the traditional walls between class areas.

Tuchman is the smoothly practiced professional as she works with a class of about 15 students, smartly dressed in the school uniform of dark blue pants and skirts and white shirts and blouses.

Pointing to words and pictures on the wall, Tuchman moves through a series of drills on basic things: the days of the week, months of the year, and the four seasons. She gets students to say the words by constantly asking questions, usually of the whole class, but sometimes of individuals.

In one drill, she goes through the coins commonly found in pocket change
— penny, nickel, dime and quarter — weaving in the words, the numbers and little historical lessons about the presidents depicted on each of the four coins.

There is a remarkable moment when the first-graders, who received training in English in kindergarten, seem to be far enough along to grasp a pun or word play based on their new language.

Tuchman points to a drawing and asks: “Do you know what fog is?”

“Like a frog,” a youngster wisecracks, drawing a laugh from his classmates. Tuchman smiles and explains, “Clouds come down and then you can’t see too good.”

Political issues

As with their preferred methods of teaching, Tuchman and Aceves have very different ways of handling the political question of what impact bilingual education has on society. Much of the early opposition to bilingual education warned that the United States would become another Canada, a divided society speaking two different languages.

In fact, a group that wants to preserve a one-language culture, English First, says the initiative is already giving new momentum to legislation in Congress that would repeal federal bilingual education laws.

“I’m hearing from more congressmen that we have to do something about bilingual education,” said Jim Boulet Jr., English First executive director. “So I am cautiously optimistic that we might be able to kill this program.”

Tuchman politely declines to be drawn into a discussion about the politics of bilingual education. In her view, bilingual education hurts Latino students by keeping them segregated from other students for years, contributing to low test scores and high dropout rates — and, in the end, dimming their chances of advancement in life.

Her own experience and recent polls tell her that most Latino parents want their children to be taught English quickly. A statewide Field Poll found that the initiative is supported by 69 percent of all voters and 66 percent of Latinos.

“I see it as an English literacy issue — not as a racial issue,
not as an assimilation issue, not as a diversity issue,” said Tuchman.

With Aceves, a discussion of bilingual education is steeped in social issues and ethnic consciousness. He said activists in the 1960s used to refer to Latinos like Tuchman, who made it into the middle-class mainstream in Orange County, as “vendidos,” people who sold out their culture.

“Basically, it boils down to a political hotbed,” said Aceves.
“It’s a very racial issue. People of the majority of the culture think we should all speak English. I don’t disagree. I think we should all be biliterate.”

Aceves feels the strong pull of Mexico. Sometimes he goes up on the roof of the school to retrieve a ball from the playground. He can see Tijuana and the high-rises of downtown San Diego, two cities so near yet so far apart.

“I’m sitting here and you can see Tijuana, and we can’t even talk to them,” said Aceves.

At Taft in Santa Ana, the veteran principal knows that Latino parents,
who must give permission for their children to be placed in the immersion program, have a strong attachment to their culture and ethnic identity.
But his prescription is different from the one issued by Aceves.

“I tell them, ‘If you work at home on language and customs of the old country and let us teach in English, we will develop a student who is fluent in both arenas,’ ” Hart said. “I have never yet had a parent turn me down.”

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