Californians passed Proposition 227 two years ago with 61 percent of the vote. The law ended bilingual education and ordered immigrant students to be immersed in English, rather than exposed to it gradually as they continued to learn in their native language, most often Spanish.

Liberal educators were furious. They claimed that children would be overwhelmed, test scores would plummet, and worst of all, large numbers of immigrant families would be driven away from the public schools.
Conservative educators denied charges that this was precisely their intent –
to deny education to the foreign-born – though for some, it clearly was.

Neither liberals nor conservatives, however, accurately anticipated the resilience of the kids they were arguing about. Early test results have surprised everyone. Students immersed in English not only learned but showed dramatic improvement in reading and other subjects. Kids became fluent in English after nine months, not six or seven years.

More testing will be needed to fully understand the implications of the change. But for states such as Florida, where an exclusively English approach called ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) predominates,
the news is heartening.

California’s experience reinforces the results of a Palm Beach County School District study completed this year. After completing ESOL programs, about 4,000 immigrant students who learned English as a second language scored as well on state tests as their native-born peers. Other studies have found that immigrant children overwhelmingly prefer speaking English to their parents’ language, generally make better grades than American-born students and have lower dropout rates.

Last year, the county’s ESOL program taught English to more than 18,000 youths who represented about 75 foreign tongues. Experiments with bilingualism continue. Gove Elementary, a Belle Glade magnet school, and North Grade Elementary in Lake Worth have offered dual-language options in which Spanish-speakers and English-speakers are grouped in the same classes and learn each other’s language. Students can become bilingual by the fifth grade.

The program is made possible by a five-year, $ 1.25 million federal grant, a fine example of how government really can help the schools: Give them money and stay out of their way. Above all, adults should never underestimate the will and ability of immigrant kids to learn.

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