San Francisco bilingual program cited as model

School chief defends method, challenges English-only backer

SAN FRANCISCO — The superintendent of the state’s fifth largest school district, home to some of California’s most successful bilingual programs,
yesterday squared off in a lively debate with the author of the initiative that would end those programs throughout the state.

Students who have spent four years in San Francisco’s bilingual education programs perform at or above the national average on standardized tests in reading and math, according to the district’s studies. And, the district says, high-schoolers who go through its bilingual program have better attendance records than most other students in the 63,000-student district.

It was against that backdrop that San Francisco Unified School Superintendent Waldemar Rojas challenged Proposition 227 author Ron Unz, who hopes to end the current system of bilingual education under his June 2 ballot initiative.

Under the present system, about 30 percent of the 1.4 million California students who speak little or no English can take some classes taught in their native language. That would end under the Unz initiative. So would English as a Second-Language (ESL) classes where limited or non-English speaking students learn and sharpen English skills.

If the measure is approved by voters, bilingual education would be dramatically restructured with non-English speaking students attending classes that are taught primarily in English. After one year, they would be transferred into regular academic classes.

Unz, a millionaire Silicon Valley businessman and unsuccessful candidate in the 1994 Republican gubernatorial primary, began his campaign to end bilingual education after hearing about Los Angeles Latino parents who picketed the school board to get their children in English-only classes.

These Latino children were being taught only in Spanish and their parents’
efforts to pull the children out of those classes and have them taught in English were being ignored, Unz said.

“There is a difference between a program that is a failure and when it’s insanity because parents have to carry picket signs,” Unz said.

Los Angeles may have some problems with its bilingual education programs,
but San Francisco is not Los Angeles, Rojas said. Nearly half of the district’s students are Chinese and Latino.

“Whether one finds weaknesses in bilingual education, and there are many, doesn’t mean you hit it with a sledgehammer and get rid of it,”
Rojas told about 200 reporters and editors attending the national Education Writers Association meeting here.

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