School districts far apart on Prop. 227

Bilingual education still taught

Six months after California voters sounded the death knell for bilingual education with Proposition 227, such programs have dwindled but have far from disappeared.

While no exact tallies exist, initiative sponsor Ron Unz estimates 60 percent to 70 percent of students previously taught in their native languages are now learning in English, while state education officials place the figure at a more generous 90 percent.

“I think we’ve gotten rid of most of the bilingual programs in the state,” said Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. “Even though implementation has been inconsistent and there are a lot of districts blatantly ignoring the law, we’re moving in the right direction.”

Educators say they are doing their best to obey the new law despite the struggle of implementing new programs with very little lead time and an ongoing shortage of qualified teachers and appropriate books for English learners.

Still, the proposition that promised that all students would “be taught English by being taught in English” has had vastly different results from district to district and even from school to school.

“You see in (California’s) 8,000 schools as many varieties of Proposition 227 programs as there were bilingual programs before,” said Sonia Hernandez, deputy superintendent of the state Department of Education. “I think there is a wide variation and, in truth, I don’t think that’s a problem.”

Prior to the initiative’s passage in June — with nearly 61 percent of the vote — public schools for decades were required to teach the state’s 1.4 million limited-English students in their native languages while they learned English.

But in reality, less than a third of those students were in such “bilingual education programs,” mainly due to a bilingual teacher shortage. Locally, the number was much smaller, about 5 percent.

While Sacramento County’s 34,000-plus English learners make up the state’s fastest-growing and ninth largest limited-English population, schools generally have placed limited-English students in mainstream classes and relied on bilingual translators and tutors because of the large variety of languages spoken. Surrounding counties have relatively few English learners.

Though Proposition 227 aimed to eliminate bilingual programs, a clause allowing parent-requested waivers has kept bilingual education alive in many districts.

In San Francisco Unified, for example, the percentage of limited-English students in bilingual programs actually increased from 40 percent to 46 percent. District officials, who say a court order mandates they continue providing bilingual classes, attribute the increase to successful programs and improved parent outreach.

But in Los Angeles Unified, which educates more than a fifth of the state’s limited-English students, enrollment in bilingual classes dropped precipitously.

Last year, more than 107,000 students took bilingual classes. By late October, parents of less than 12,000 students had requested waivers for them to continue receiving native language instruction — an 89 percent decrease.

The numbers varied greatly from school to school, with one campus receiving only three waiver requests, while at another, waivers were sought for 95 percent of students in the bilingual program, said district spokeswoman Socorro Serrano. Unz and his English of the Children organization, which is tracking complaints, claim some schools have coerced parents into choosing bilingual programs. Unz said he is considering suing some districts to force compliance with the initiative and next week will ask a judge to throw out a lawsuit by civil rights groups that say the proposition violates federal law.

Initiative backers point, for example, to information given to parents in Ventura County’s Oxnard Elementary district. It said choosing an English-only program would mean academics would be replaced with English-as-a-second-language instruction and kindergartners would receive no “reading/writing readiness.”

Stephanie Purdy, who oversees Oxnard’s programs for English learners, said the district wanted parents to understand that children with little or no English skills would not be immediately able to start reading or learning grade-level curriculum in English. Such instruction would be delayed until a student mastered enough English vocabulary, she said.

About 4,600 Oxnard students are now in bilingual classes, down to 60 percent of English learners from 80 percent last year.

Unz also is concerned that some districts are continuing to teach students in their native languages but calling it “English immersion.” While the initiative mandated that approach, it defined it only as being “overwhelmingly” or “nearly all” in English, and the state Board of Education let local districts decide what that meant.

Sacramento City schools have told teachers they should teach primarily in English but can “preview and review” lessons in students’ native languages, said Suanna Gilman-Ponce, director of multilingual education. For instance, no more than 122 minutes of a primary language can be used during a 300-minute day for fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

Other districts have taken a much stricter approach.

In Oceanside Unified in San Diego County, Superintendent Ken Noonan said Spanish can be used “only at the very end of the line to help the child understand.”

Noonan, a former bilingual teacher who thought the initiative would be “devastating,” said he nonetheless decided that a strict interpretation would “create less confusion, less ambivalence and focus more on the job at hand, which is teaching kids English.”

The district, which had 2,500 students in Spanish bilingual classes last year, now has none.

“All in all, I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well the staff has done, and most kids seem to be thriving,” Noonan said.

Elk Grove Unified also has adopted a strict reading of the law. While the district previously had no bilingual classes, it used bilingual aides to help tutor English learners in their first languages. Now those aides give that extra help in English. Primary language support is used only outside the school day.

San Juan Unified continues to use aides to provide some primary language help but did not get enough waivers — the initiative requires 20 per grade — to continue its handful of bilingual classes.

Isabel Johnson, who oversees the district’s English-language-learner program, said she is most concerned about what will happen next year when students deemed “reasonably fluent” in English are placed in mainstream classrooms under the new law.

She said schools are grappling with how to provide extra help until such students are fully fluent.

“Because the kid’s not fluent, he’s not going to be able to compete with an English-only child in that classroom,” Johnson said. “I think the families . . . and the kids are going to feel it, and they’re going to say, ‘What happened?’ ”

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