The battle over bilingual education

King School prepared to fight

Martin Luther King Jr. School in east Stockton could be ground zero for the battle to save bilingual education.

At King, more than half of the 950 students speak Spanish as their first and sometimes only language. Their parents speak little or no English.

Many students came to this country from poor farm villages in Mexico,
where they received little formal schooling. But even those well-educated in their homeland can’t understand the teachers or read the textbooks. They need help, and nobody knows that better than the teachers at King, especially Principal Grace Madrid.

“I can remember being in grade school myself in this country, not understanding a thing and then having my mouth washed out with soap for speaking in Spanish,” Madrid said. “Everybody forgets the past,
… when we had 70 percent of Latino kids failing or dropping out. In a whole family, maybe one kid would finish high school.”

After decades of failure teaching limited-English speakers, Madrid backs a controversial strategy: Teach kids their core subjects in Spanish for one to three years, gradually moving students into all-English instruction.

Supporters of bilingual education — and that includes most bilingual teachers as well as some of the state’s most-respected linguists — say it works better than anything tried so far.

At King School, scores are improving, English learners show up for class more often, and teachers say students are learning English while keeping up with math, science and social studies.

And there are schools all over the state reporting success with bilingual instruction. “It doesn’t work when a teacher spits out Spanish for 20 minutes of the day just to meet a state requirement,” Madrid said.
“It works when you have committed teachers and a solid program. When you mean it.”

In the firestorm over bilingual instruction in California, Madrid says bilingual’s successes have been overlooked.

Critics call bilingual instruction a massive “failed experiment”
resulting in students who don’t read and write English. Citing anecdotal horror stories, a parent boycott of bilingual classes in Southern California and low test scores statewide, opponents have been persuasive in their campaign to do away with bilingual instruction — winning support from Latino parents and distinguished Latino educators.

“I just think the students are here, and they need to learn our primary language, and they need to be taught in it,” said Yolanda Salsedo,
a Tracy parent whose two children are native English speakers. “Most are young, and they are at an age when they can learn the language.”

Her views are widely shared. “I believe that the bilingual-education programs found in many California schools are a poor substitute for English-language instruction,” said Jaime Escalante, whose success in teaching poor,
Latino teenagers inspired the film “Stand and Deliver.”

“It seems a real tragedy.”

Learning in Spanish

Their opposition hurts, says Silvia Martinez, director of primary instruction at King School. But it doesn’t change anything.

You wouldn’t guess by looking at Martinez’s third-grade classroom that up until this year, her students were taught mostly in Spanish. Martinez speaks only English. The walls are plastered with posters, charts and instructions,
all in English. In one corner, library shelves are bursting with books,
including “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Notorious Numbers.”

But look closer. A dozen children sit at a row of computers, intent on composing stories for a districtwide competition. Silvia Ambriz, 9, is writing hers in English and Spanish. “It’s easy. I think in Spanish and speak in English,” Silvia said.

That, Martinez observes, is the program’s greatest reward: Students who become fluent in both languages.

“We have found that if they have the instruction in Spanish first,
they can go on to a natural transition into English,” Martinez said.
“We don’t have the resources to teach them in both languages all the way through, but we’d sure like to.”

Added second-grade teacher Emilia Sosa: “If they can read in Spanish,
it is just that much easier to teach them to read in English.”

Sosa speaks Spanish for most of the day, teaching in English only for English-language instruction, art and, sometimes, reading.

Across the aisle from Sosa, first-graders are also learning most subjects in Spanish. “If I wanted to learn Russian and take physics, I wouldn’t enroll myself in a Russian physics class,” teacher Bonnie Russell said.

Critics of bilingual instruction argue the system teaches students in Spanish and other primary languages at the expense of learning English.

“Although California certainly has its share of bizarre and harmful government programs, a reasonable case can be made that bilingual ed is the worst,” said Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur-turned-politician who wrote Proposition 227 to dismantle bilingual education in California.

His initiative calls for English learners to spend one year in English immersion and then be mainstreamed into regular English-instruction classes.
The measure would make it illegal to teach in any language except English,
although it provides for waivers for parents who convince schools and districts that their children need more help.

In his argument, Unz invokes the successes of parochial schools, which do not typically offer native-language instruction and generally boast higher test scores than public schools.

Stephen Krashen, known to many as the father of bilingual education in California, says one year is nowhere near enough time for students to master English well enough to make it in mainstream classes.

He and other bilingual supporters scoff at Unz’s comparisons to parochial schools, which have few limited-English speakers.

But teaching children who speak another language is a way of life at King, the first school in San Joaquin County to be racially integrated by court order in the 1960s and, in the 1980s, the first to receive an influx of children from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Few of those children had ever received a formal education, and one group came from a tribe whose written language was only 50 years old.

Madrid has helped students from across town off the bus and pinned made-up names on children from Indochina whose names were as incomprehensible to her teachers as their vocabulary.

“It is inconceivable to me what they expect in a sink-or-swim situation,”
Madrid said. “I cannot think of not being able to talk to these kids in Spanish. People think these kids aren’t learning English, and they are wrong.”

Down to the numbers

One of the biggest arguments Unz makes is the apparent slow rate at which bilingual students are learning English. He has widely advertised that a large percentage of the kids in bilingual programs fail to learn English,
basing his claim on the state’s annual count of students who moved from
“English learner” to “English fluent.”

The state gets that count from school “redesignation rates,”
the annual percentage of English learners who are reclassified as fluent in English as a result of a language test.

In 1997, the state redesignation rate was 6.7 percent, which Unz says means a nearly 94 percent failure rate.

Bilingual educators say that’s baloney: Even native English speakers don’t always pass the English-fluency test, which examines students’ abilities to speak, read and write English.

Also, while the state has certain requirements that must be met, for all practical purposes, it is up to the schools to test and report, and they do that inconsistently.

Patricia Busher, principal of Cleveland School in Stockton, said that last year, she redesignated far fewer students than she could have, because testing the kids and doing the paperwork takes teachers and students away from valuable classroom work.

“The redesignation numbers mean nothing. … The reports are inconsistent,
and they don’t do anything to help the students,” Busher said.

About 1.4 million students in California public schools are not English-fluent,
according to state reports. One-third of those are learning in their primary languages. The rest are taught in English in a variety of programs, many of which include some complementary native-language instruction.

In San Joaquin County, 23 percent of 108,489 students are limited-English speakers. About 70 percent speak Spanish, but there are 53 other languages spoken in the county’s schools, including Khmer, Vietnamese, Hmong, Tagalog and Punjabi. Stockton and Lodi unified school districts have most of the limited-English speaking students. Stockton Unified estimates 11,000 of its students have little understanding of the language. In Lodi, there are 7,000 English learners enrolled in public schools.

About 20 percent of the English learners in those districts receive primary instruction for one to three years. The rest are taught in English by teachers credentialed to reach non-English speakers through nonverbal strategies and some bilingual assistance.

Bilingual: a tradition

Bilingual education in the United States is as old as the first European families. There was a time when teachers in the Dakotas taught German immigrants in their primary language until the students picked up English. Dutch and Portuguese were taught in other states.

California’s current programs came out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when minority groups were demanding equal opportunities for their children.

For decades, English learners, who predictably scored poorly on I.Q.
tests given in English, were placed in classes for the mentally retarded or treated as though they were ignorant. Lodi civics teacher Maria Elena Serna recalled the humiliation of being scolded for speaking in Spanish.

“It was so degrading, most of us just didn’t survive,” Serna said, explaining that huge numbers of kids just dropped out of school.

Enraged parents sued states to have their children tested in their native languages. “The Latino leaders took a leaf out of the civil rights movement and started agitating for help,” said Rosalie Porter, an author and longstanding critic of bilingual education. “And they were right,
the students were not being given help, and sometimes that meant classification as mentally retarded.”

A lawsuit by a Chinese family in San Francisco led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering public schools to offer limited-English-speaking students help. The ruling did not specify bilingual education and left the decision on how to comply up to school districts.

But California and a couple dozen other states demanded that districts develop very specific bilingual programs, whether local educators wanted them or not. California dropped its mandatory bilingual law in 1987, but the California Board of Education continued to require the programs. Ironically,
it was not until this year, only two weeks after the state board dropped the requirement, that Stockton Unified schools had enough students in bilingual programs to be considered in compliance with the state agency’s rules.

Stockton Unified bilingual director Howard Maxie was thrilled. “Bilingual has worked for us,” Maxie said. “Those who go through bilingual education are outscoring other youngsters. There is a general misconception about bilingual education. We are seeing success.”

The current program is only 4 years old, but already, Maxie said, there is greater accountability for outcome and a higher number of children being mainstreamed quickly into English instruction.

The issue is huge in Stockton Unified, where a third of the students are English learners.

In 1996, SUSD moved 1,000 students into mainstream classes. That fall,
the district received 1,127 new English-learner students, mostly kindergartners who spoke only Spanish.

Older students struggle

At Stockton’s Hamilton Middle School, all of math teacher Armandina Machuca’s students are native Spanish speakers. She teaches four classes in English and two in Spanish.

She says her goal is keep her students at least at grade level, and she can’t do that in English only. “I am not teaching English here. I am teaching math,” Machuca said.

Machuca’s room is lined with beautiful posters depicting math around the world. The “Math of Mexico” print is center stage, but it is flanked by computations and instructions in English.

The seventh-graders in her third-period class have been taught in English since first or second grade. Machuca and the kids say that didn’t work out for the best, at least not in math.

One of her best students, Elias Cintora, 14, started first grade not understanding a word of English. He said he was lost for a long time.

“The language problem got us all behind,” he said. “It helps to hear some explanations in Spanish now, but they could have taught us the subjects in Spanish when we first came — or they just should have taught us English first.”

Added Nathanial Serrano, 13: “I just never understood the English well enough to do well in school.”

In sixth period, Machuca speaks mostly in Spanish. All but a couple of students are recent arrivals from Mexico — many with little formal education.
That background, Machuca says, is a much bigger threat to the children’s academic success than not knowing English.

Machuca says Unz’s initiative only pretends to address poor performances among English learners. It completely ignores, she argues, the real reasons
— poverty, mobility and education gaps — for widespread failure.

Worse, she says, it will penalize children who were good students in their homelands. Those kids, she says, will fall behind in core subjects they actually know quite well and, at 10 or 12 years old, won’t learn English fast enough to ever catch up here.

Oscar Serbian, 13, did well in school in Mexico before moving to Stockton with his family last December. He is at least at grade level at Hamilton,
where he is taught core subjects in Spanish and receives English instruction for an hour each day.

“I want to learn English, but it is so hard to write in it,”
he said. “If the classes were only in English, I couldn’t do the work.”

Back at King School, Madrid wears a button on her lapel that reads “No on 227.” She, like so many teachers in schools like hers, is a passionate defender of bilingual education.

Standing in her office doorway, Madrid watches students in their navy-blue King School uniforms milling in the hallway. “The bottom line,”
she says, “they’ll have to put a lot of us in jail if they try to take this away from these kids.”

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