San Francisco schools Superintendent Bill Rojas has ordered elementary school principals to remove hundreds of English-proficient students from bilingual classes.
The move, which takes effect next school year, would reverse a years -long practice in which students who speak English well were mixed with those who do not.
Integration of students with varied English skills was intended to increase diversity, but the result was that black students who spoke English well were twice as likely to be placed in bilingual classes as whites who spoke it well, and typically didn’t fare well academically.
Roughly 600 of the 10,000 students in bilingual classes in elementary school are black and English-proficient. That is about 11 percent of the total African American elementary school enrollment.
A much smaller proportion of white English-speaking elementary school students are placed in bilingual classes, said Robert Harrington, coordinator of Planning, Research and Information Systems for the district. He cited no specific figure.
Learning is slowed
Whether black or white, Rojas said Wednesday, English-speaking students receive few benefits from bilingual classrooms.
“There is no research that shows that placing English-dominant kids in bilingual classes is helpful,” Rojas said. “My concern is that placing youngsters who are English proficient in a class that is half the time in the other language are not learning. It is slowing down their process of picking up information, and they need to be taught in an English environment.”
Rojas’ predecessor, Ramon Cortines, vowed four years ago to eliminate mixing of proficient and nonproficient students, but the plan was not carried out.
Until 1987, state law required bilingual classrooms to have no more than two-thirds limited-English speakers. But the practice continued after the law lapsed.
While a court-mandated desegregation plan for the district encourages diversity in classrooms, it makes exceptions for bilingual classes. It requires only that students from these classes spend at least 20 percent of the school day in integrated classes.
Parents have complained that the integration is too often driven by the need to fill slots in bilingual classes. When there are too few bilingual students to make up a full classroom, English-speaking students are added.
“Students should be placed in appropriate programs,” Rojas said. “The budget and the allocations have become more important than the instructional program.”
Some teachers and parents were skeptical of Rojas’ plan.
Victor Tam, a kindergarten Chinese-bilingual teacher at Sutro Elementary School, said he was concerned about segregating students.
Mixing students of varied language skills helps bilingual children learn English, he said.
“A lot of times kids learn best from other kids,” Tam said. “Just yesterday, I was speaking to a Russian-speaking parent. She was saying, “My grandson met a little girl who spoke English. They learn the language together.’ That’s what bilingual education is about.”
Christina Rowe, a mother of two children at Cobb Elementary, said the plan would further segregate kids and make classrooms uneven.
“There won’t be enough children left in (bilingual) classrooms to make a class,” Rowe said. “(Rojas) might as well create a whole new school just for those children, which would be a travesty.
“We’re trying to teach these children to get along. How is that going to happen if we keep separating the children?”
Some San Francisco schools have moved toward clustering bilingual students in separate classrooms.
“My son asked me the other day, “Are they going to put all the black people in one classroom?,’ Rowe said. “(This new system) makes it seem like we’re not supposed to be together.”
Kathy Burghardt, a parent at Francis Scott Key Elementary, said she had mixed reactions to Rojas’ plan.
“It has its pluses and minuses,” Burghardt said. “In terms of my kid, knowing that she won’t be put into a class where she’s going to be experiencing another language while she ought to be learning math is probably going to be to her advantage.
“I think it’s going to further segregate the English-speaking students from the non-English-speaking students. And that’s a big problem with the bilingual classes anyway.”
But John Muir Elementary co-principal Virginia Watkins sees the mandate as a necessary evil.
To address the issue of segregation, Watkins said, she and co -principal Cecilia Wambach would create activities and class time for students to mingle.
Tam said he didn’t believe a few hours a day would be enough to promote cultural sensitivity.