When Seattle education consultant Gin Woo was growing up, Chinese was the preferred language at home while English was spoken outside the household.
And that, says the North Beacon Hill resident, instilled her with the self-esteem to tackle and excel in academic subjects taught in languages other than her native one.
“If (non-English speaking) students are instructed first in their native language, they can more easily make the leap to the next phase in education no matter what the second language is,” Woo said.
This is the crucial point behind a class-action suit filed by Evergreen Legal Services against the Seattle School District to force an expansion of its bilingual education program.
The suit, filed Monday in King County Superior Court on behalf of 18 students and their parents, demands that the school district revamp its bilingual lesson plans to include more native language instruction.
The suit also calls for expansion of English as a Second Language courses to more schools and provide more textbooks and multilingual training for teachers.
“We hope that the case will help to bring the necessary attention, resources and education approaches to address the needs of limited English-speaking students,” said Deborah Perluss, an attorney with Evergreen.
The suit came after almost a year of negotiations between the district and Evergreen.
Of the district’s 44,000 students, about 10,000 speak two or more languages.
About 75 different languages are spoken by children throughout the district.
School officials say a mass infusion of state money would be needed to begin teaching in the native languages of just the largest student ethnic groups, which include Cambodians, Vietnamese, Hispanics and Chinese.
Money for bilingual education has increased by about 30 percent over the past four years from $6.2 million annually during the 1988-89 school year to $8.3 million allocated for 1992-93.
And the district says it uses more of its own money to make up for the gap in state funding for bilingual education than it does for regular, compensatory and special education programs.
Of the $8.3 million for bilingual education, almost $3 million is state and federal money, while the rest is made up by the district through general funds.
“I’m comfortable the district is doing all it can reasonably do within its funding and if more is to be done, more state funding will be required,” said the district’s attorney, Michael Hoge.
According to the 1990 census, 75,122 – 15.4 percent – of Seattle’s residents 5 years or older spoke a language other than English at home. That was up from 56,829 people – 13.8 percent – in 1980.
Not everyone supports dual-language instruction.
Tommie Oiye, a food-processing plant manager of Japanese descent, said he would prefer that immigrant children learn the English language as quickly as possible.
“There is only so much time to get that education and if they spend so much time learning in their own language and then switch over to English in junior high they’re going to have problems,” said the Beacon Hill father of two.
But Evergreen attorneys say that without changes in its bilingual program, the district is not complying with the state law that requires school districts to provide dual-language instruction when practical.
“We believe it is practical and feasible for the district to do more native language instruction than they’re doing with existing resources,” Perluss said.
But Hoge said, “Prior school funding with the state has established that the state must fully fund all legal requirements so if the law requires more than Seattle is doing, the state has a constitutional obligation to pay for it.”