LOS ANGELES, June 18—Vowing to speed the progress of students to mainstream education programs from bilingual ones, the nation’s second-largest school district will offer its schools financial rewards pegged to the number of their students who make the transition.
The proposal is outlined in the district’s Master Plan for English Learners, which was unanimously approved on Monday by the Los Angeles Board of Education.
One other California school district has a similar incentive program, but Los Angeles’s is the first in a large urban district. Forty-six percent of the district’s 650,000 students originally spoke a language other than English, more than any other school district in the nation. By contrast, in New York City public schools, about 15 percent of the 1.03 million students are not native speakers of English.
The Los Angeles School Board has not yet decided on the details of the policy, which would set aside 5 percent annually, or about $2.5 million, of the state money the district receives for bilingual education programs for bonuses. The bonuses would be distributed to schools based on the number of students in bilingual programs who pass tests to move into mainstream classes. Schools would use the money to offer those students after-school tutoring and other services.
The Santa Maria-Bonita School District, about 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara County, began an incentive program in 1995 much like the one approved here. Of the district’s 4,700 students with limited English, 108 tested their way into mainstream classes under the program last year, nearly three times more than the previous year.
Los Angeles school officials hope for similar results. Of the 300,000 or so Los Angeles students with limited English, about 92 percent speak Spanish; Armenian and Korean are next, followed by 75 other languages. Schools receive extra money for each of these students to pay for bilingual education programs. Now, when students have learned enough English to move into mainstream classes, schools lose that additional money.
“It’s a fiscal disincentive,” said Mark Slavkin, president of the Los Angeles Board of Education. “What we’ve attempted to do is eliminate the feeling that schools are financially penalized as they move kids into English programs.”
Los Angeles has been a pioneer of bilingual instruction, in which students are taught in their own languages and gradually eased into English. The approach is based on research indicating that students with limited English proficiency gain a stronger academic foundation and are able to keep up with their English-speaking counterparts if they are taught core subjects like reading and math in their first language. With this approach, a child will take five to six years to make a successful transition into mainstream classes, said Jim Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.
While the district’s new plan does not abandon this approach, it places limits on it by suggesting that students who enter Los Angeles schools in kindergarten spend no more than five years in bilingual education classes, and that middle and high school students spend three to four years in such classes. Currently, it takes students in Los Angeles five to seven years on average to make the transition.
“We’re attempting to address some of the public’s perception that kids are being left in these programs forever,” said Jessie G. Franco, the district’s assistant superintendent for language acquisition and bilingual development
Bilingual education has been under assault recently, with California voters passing Proposition 187 in 1994, which if approved by the courts would deny public education and other government benefits to children who are illegal immigrants, and with supporters of English-only initiatives denouncing bilingual education as ineffective and a waste of taxpayer money. In addition, several pending state and Federal proposals would limit students in bilingual classes to two or three years.
The school district began reviewing its bilingual education policy after Sidney A. Thompson, the superintendent of Los Angeles schools, made it a priority to move students more quickly through bilingual programs. Last year slightly more than 8 percent of the Los Angeles students in bilingual classes made the transition to mainstream. Two years ago, that figure was less than 5 percent.
But some say the political climate is pressuring school districts like Los Angeles to move students out of bilingual programs too soon.
“Quick transitioning is appealing,” Mr. Lyons said, “but a lot of times those kids have deficits in content areas as a result.”
“I think bilingual education is about the only program where there’s a perception that it’s best to get the child out as quickly as you can,” he said, adding that such an approach ignored how much the child is learning or how the child is learning.