Teaching English a frustrating lesson for district

First of a two-part series

Show-and-tell is a fun, familiar ritual for many kindergartners, but tears of frustration well in Kong Vue’s eyes as he watches his teacher and classmates.

In a room full of children, Kong is alone, speaking only bits of his native Hmong. Most of his days at Homan Elementary School are spent poking Play-Doh and looking at picture books.

His inability to understand English well is a stumbling block shared by nearly one in three pupils in Fresno city schools. About 12,000 Fresno pupils understand no English and an equal number speak very little, ranking Fresno Unified fifth-highest in California for enrollment of children who speak limited or no English.

One hundred languages are spoken in the district, making it one of the state’s most diverse.

That ranking, coupled with Fresno Unified’s admittedly slow response in dealing with it, will be under scrutiny during the next several months by separate teams from the state and federal departments of education.

At stake are millions of dollars for the district. And while the inquiries continue, the debate remains unsettled about whether bilingual education is even valid; some believe that children should be taught in English only.

Most of the reviews will take place May 10-19. Three schools will be reviewed the week of April 17-21.

The state and federal reviews will be done concurrently, although the motivation for each is different. Federal officials say several “informal complaints” have been made against the school district, but the state reviews are routine and required by law. At some sites, both review teams will also be looking at gender equity, special education and migrant education.

Fresno gets a warning

In 1993, the California Department of Education warned Fresno Unified officials to get their bilingual program in order.

Two years later, local education authorities say the district had dug itself a hole from which it is slowly emerging. But they say Fresno Unified is moving in the right direction and will show real improvement in the next five years.

In 1984, the district had 5,910 pupils who could not speak English, of which 80 percent spoke Spanish. Today, children speaking languages from Southeast Asia make up the majority of the 24,000 bilingual-program pupils.

Around the Valley, other districts are also grappling with a growing population of non-English speakers. Of the 28,600 children attending Clovis Unified schools, 2,500 are classified as being limited-English proficient, or LEP, students. Madera and Visalia school districts each have about 3,800 such children.

Given Fresno Unified’s statistics, Norm Gold, who heads the state Department of Education’s Complaint Management and Bilingual Compliance Unit, described Fresno Unified as “a major district that has been slower than most in getting up to speed in terms of compliance.”

The U.S. Department of Education, through its civil-rights division, has asked the district for information ranging from report cards to descriptions of how schools communicate with parents who do not understand English, said Heidi Estep, who heads the district’s assessment department. More than $ 36 million in annual federal and state funding could be lost if the district is not meeting the needs of its pupils and refuses to improve.

But Rodger Murphey, a spokesman for the federal education department, says districts are rarely sanctioned because school officials almost always take action to comply.

District administrators predict Fresno Unified will be found to be out of compliance in some areas, especially because there are so few bilingual teachers.

However, new plans and policies will show a good-faith effort and spare them from any budget cuts, they say.

“The fact is, we’re in trouble,” said Barbara Carrillo, the district’s multilingual coordinator. She was hired in 1993 after state officials told the district it was falling behind in hiring bilingual teachers and purchasing books.

“We just can’t undo in a few weeks what we didn’t do years ago,” she said.

Carrillo was referring to the district’s decision to disband its bilingual administrative unit in 1991 to save money. Seven administrative positions were cut, leaving one employee to monitor the district’s rapidly changing demographics.

At the same time, year-round schools were created to address crowding, distracting the district from unifying a program for its multicultural students.

Superintendent Chuck McCully says the consequences will be devastating if the district does not address its multilingual needs. Thousands of frustrated children, unable to speak English or their native languages fluently, will drop out.

To meet state requirements, the school district would have to hire hundreds of bilingual teachers.

But Deberie Gomez, who oversees the district’s hiring, says there are not enough qualified bilingual teachers available. Others say Fresno Unified’s hiring practices have been late and disorganized, allowing qualified bilingual teachers to slip away.

A lack of Spanish-speaking teachers is not the biggest problem in Fresno. More than half of the children needing help speak Asian languages. The district has two Hmong teachers, and it needs 192. It has no teachers credentialed in the Vietnamese, Lao, Armenian, Punjabi, Russian or Khmer languages, although it needs 112.

There are 50 teachers in Spanish-speaking classrooms, but many of them do not want to teach in Spanish. Without proper teaching materials, they are forced to translate everything, yet they do not receive extra pay for their skills.

The Fresno Teachers Association refuses to negotiate higher pay for bilingual teachers because it says all teachers with “specialties” like special education or bilingual talents should be rewarded the same or not at all.

The bilingual teacher shortage has left individual schools to scramble and establish whatever program they could fund, using a makeshift combination of tutors, teachers and parent volunteers.

McCully said the impending reviews are forcing the district to focus its programs.

“It’s not going to be an overnight process, but I believe the team visits to Fresno are addressing some of the things we need to improve,” he said.

He also admits the district is sure to be found deficient in three areas:

* Number of bilingual teachers.

* Number of teachers with the appropriate credentials.

* Lack of books and materials in students’ primary languages.

Paul Garcia, a parent with four daughters in Fresno schools, is a member of the district’s bilingual advisory committee. He said the district had communicated poorly with non-English-speaking parents and had not helped involve them in schools.

“Parents are just not being geared into the proper channels and understanding their roles or told how they can help their child’s rights,” Garcia said.

“I think a lot of parents just don’t trust the administrators. And they have some distance to go to establish some rapport with those parents.”

Others believe the district should abandon attempts at bilingual education altogether.

Chuck Wilson, a former Fresno Unified trustee, labeled the district’s bilingual education efforts a “dismal failure” because graduates of Fresno’s high schools cannot fill his company’s basic employment application.

“I advocate total immersion (in English), even though that is not the politically popular view,” he said. “People have got to accept that this is the United States of America and when you come here, you can’t change it to Mexico or Laos.”

As a trustee, Wilson suggested that newcomers be put into an intensive 90-day program to learn English and then place children in appropriate grade levels. It was never approved.

“This has got to change because if it doesn’t, we’re going to see more problems in society,” he said. “. . . We will see more drugs, gangs and crime if something doesn’t change.”

That change, Wilson said, is likely to come only if laws are amended forcing the state to change its education policies.

He supports proposals like one made by Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., who introduced a bill that would make English the national language, abolish the bilingual education office and end federal programs promoting bilingualism.

Lawrence Grayson of US English in Washington, D.C., said bilingual programs can be demeaning to children because they carry a message: “You will never learn English unless you are in special classes.”

US English is a national organization that primarily lobbies lawmakers to make English the official common language of government and its institutions.

“There has got to be a balance struck,” Grayson said, saying too many people fear students will get lazy in such programs and never learn to speak English.

Their criticisms are not new.

Political tug-of-war

In 1993, the state Little Hoover Commission report attacked California’s Department of Education for promoting native-language instruction. More than a million students have been caught in a political tug-of-war since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that all children should have equal access to basic classes, the commission said.

The report’s findings remain true today, said Jeannine English, executive director of the commission.

“Our big concern continues to be that native-language instruction is touted as the only method, and it does work in some cases, but not all cases. . . . We still believe there should be flexibility of local districts and make the local school districts accountable for teaching children how to speak English,” she said.

By allowing districts to choose their methods, the state would be free to monitor results instead of enforcing guidelines, said Kathleen Beasely, deputy executive director of the commission.

Fresno County School Board President Manuel Nunez said that kind of thinking could set districts further behind. Some might choose to spend the money earmarked for bilingual education elsewhere, resulting in children forgetting their first language and never really becoming competent in English.

Jefferson Elementary School teacher Patricia Wolf said statements from bilingual naysayers make her want to cry.

She came to the United States from Madrid in 1967, and said she felt incompetent and stupid when she went to school. She is successful today, but said many children cannot overcome their initial self-doubt and fears.

Trying to spare children that experience, Carrillo of Fresno Unified is working with her staff on a master plan that would unify the programs and teaching methods. But Carrillo said she was sensing some resistance to change.

Few people are comfortable radically changing their ideas and preconceptions, said DeAnne Sobul, coordinator of cross-cultural languages and academic development at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“It’s the common scapegoating where you blame someone else for your inability to meet the demands of the situation,” she said.

Renewed focus on the bilingual issue will have a positive effect on the district, no matter what the outcome, said Al Sanchez, principal at Mayfair Elementary School.

“People have really not taken (bilingual education) too seriously until now,” he said. “It’s really been a fragmented effort to meet the need, and we, as a district, have not been moving together.

“But we really have to address it because society is not going to get more Anglo.”

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