School marks 1 year of bridging lingual barrier

Bilingual education has never skipped a beat in South Bay Union
School District, not even after the passage of Proposition 227.

The statewide initiative approved by voters in 1998 called for an
end to most bilingual education, and it could have radically changed
teaching in the South Bay district, where 41 percent of the 10,000
students are English-language learners.

So to continue teaching students their math, science, social
studies and language arts in Spanish while gradually improving their
English, South Bay educators trumped Proposition 227 with another
popular reform — the charter school movement.

South Bay Charter School, known to its Spanish-speaking attendees
as la escuela autonoma (the autonomous school), is a year old this
month. Charter schools are public schools but are free from many of
the rules in the state Education Code — including the provisions of
Proposition 227 — as long as they meet a performance standard agreed
to in their founding documents.

Charters are often tailored to community needs, and in South Bay’s
case, the need was teaching English as a second language. A founding
committee of parents, teachers and administrators decided the best
way to do that was to continue bilingual education — teaching
students in their native language to allow them to keep up
academically while learning English, and gradually increasing the
portion of their day that’s taught in English.

Under Proposition 227, non-English-speakers are to be put into
“sheltered” English for a year, during which there’s an emphasis on
vocabulary and frequent use of visual prompts to help learn the
language, before entering mainstream English-language classrooms.

Other school districts preserved established bilingual programs by
using a waiver clause written into Proposition 227. Parents can
choose to keep their children in bilingual education by signing a
waiver exempting them from the proposition’s requirements, although
they’d have to send their children to a month of English-only classes

“At the time we made the decision, we recognized that we would
have to get a waiver from every parent and that we would have to
allow for 30 days where the students were not receiving instruction
(in their native language), and quite frankly we thought that was a
travesty,” Vetcher said. “That didn’t make educational sense.”

Also, parents must sign waivers annually to keep their kids in
bilingual education. A student stays enrolled in a charter school
until a parent decides to pull out the child.

The charter school movement has spawned 27 charter schools in San
Diego County, including one for home-schoolers in Oceanside, a school
sponsored by the California Teachers Association and a school for
first-generation college students on the University of California San
Diego campus.

What sets South Bay Charter apart is that it really isn’t a single
school at all, but 3,400 students scattered among classrooms in 12
schools in the South Bay Union district.

“It is similar, if you want to make the analogy, to a virtual
school,” said Johanna Vetcher, South Bay assistant superintendent.

What has happened is that every bilingual classroom in the
district became part of the charter school. There’s no principal.
The teachers work for the district, not the charter school.

“When you speak your own language, you learn another language
better,” said Sandra Real, president of the district’s bilingual
advisory committee. “You need to learn your own language to be able
to grasp a second language.”

Real had her twin 9-year-old daughters in the charter school last
year, but they’ve since mastered enough English to enter English-
only classes in fourth grade.

Parent Socorro Naranjo said she enrolled her children in the
charter school as a vote of confidence in South Bay’s bilingual
education program. Her older children are thriving after going
through it. She has a daughter at Berkeley and a son in Advanced
Placement courses at Southwest High School.

Because she speaks little English herself, she and her elementary
school-age children speak Spanish at home.

“I prefer that they continue with Spanish so that they learn it
well,” Naranjo said. “I prefer that they speak two languages well.”

Proposition 227 author Ron Unz estimated that about a dozen
bilingual charter schools have formed statewide, and he has no
objection to them — for now.

But, he said, “One of the provisions that a charter school has to
obey is it has to show that its educational program on an ongoing
basis is successful.”

Unz believes that students in English-only classes will score
higher on state-mandated tests than bilingual education students.
That could make the legal standing of bilingual charters doubtful and
cause parents to think again before retaining their children in non-
English classes, he said.

The agreement that establishes South Bay Charter School calls for
an annual report on its performance. Vetcher will deliver that
report tomorrow at the school board meeting at district headquarters,
601 Elm Ave., Imperial Beach. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7

Vetcher’s report is filled with data on the bilingual education
program that gradually weans students off Spanish instruction over as
long as six years.

The bilingual education students score impressively on the Spanish
Assessment of Basic Education, a state-mandated test. About-three
quarters of South Bay students score above the national average on
the reading and math tests.

On the English-language SAT 9 tests, the longer students are in
bilingual education, the more likely they are to score above the
national average. About 36 percent of South Bay bilingual students
who have been in the district for six years scored above the national
average on their SAT 9 reading test last year.

Of the native-English-speaking South Bay district sixth-graders
who took the SAT 9 reading test last year, 55 percent scored above
the national average. There’s no comparison of bilingual education
students to the approximately 600 non-English-speaking students who
choose English-only instruction.

Teacher Elva Lopez-Zepeda, who teaches third grade at Nicoloff
Elementary School, said she believes the reorganization of the
bilingual program under the charter has put kids into English-
language learning earlier.

“Now I demand it a lot sooner,” she said.

Meanwhile, the students in her class alternate between books such
as Honest Abe and “El Cuento de Pedro, El Conejo” (“The Tale of Peter

Ramon Ramirez Diaz, one of Lopez-Zepeda’s third-graders, said he
was nervous at the beginning of the year because he’d heard the
teacher was strict but that he’s enjoying his classes now.

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