Oceanside Unified School Superintendent Ken Noonan has come in for a fair amount of media attention of late because of his district’s success in teaching English to Spanish-speaking students.
Noonan and Oceanside figured prominently in last Sunday’s New York Times front-page story about impressive test-score gains by California students who are learning English. The Times was especially interested in Noonan’s sudden conversion from bilingual education to the structured English immersion mandated by Proposition 227, which was approved by voters two years ago.
Noonan’s epiphany is all the more noteworthy because he founded the California Association of Bilingual Educators three decades ago and campaigned vociferously against Proposition 227. He warned, among other things, that passage of this measure would create havoc in his school district.
To the contrary, the superintendent has become a true believer in structured English immersion because he has seen it benefit Oceanside students. He’s particularly proud of district second-graders who have made significant gains in their reading scores, going from the 13th percentile to the 32nd percentile in just over a year.
While there remains plenty of room for improvement, Noonan is pleased by what he is seeing in the classroom. Students and staff alike are energized by a palpable sense of excitement and academic progress. Scores of elementary students who not so long ago were struggling with English are now reading books and eagerly relating their experience.
Noonan readily concedes that other factors are hastening the transition of these students from their native language to English. Smaller class sizes,
for instance, make it far easier for the instructor to work with children.
He also credits phonics-based instruction for much of the improvement.
Implemented districtwide three years ago, this instructional method has proved to be especially effective among Oceanside’s Hispanic students.
This is not to say that Noonan has given up on bilingual education. But he’s convinced that the structured English immersion can shorten the transition time and better prepare these students to succeed in the classroom. When he came to Oceanside in the spring of 1997, the superintendent persuaded the school board to adopt a policy that students be transitioned in three years instead of the traditional five to seven years advocated by many bilingual advocates. The implementation of that policy was superseded by the passage of Proposition 227 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Local school districts are best suited to determine the manner of language instruction for their particular student populations. We oppose top-down dictates from Sacramento.
But there is no denying that Oceanside Unified has found structured English immersion to be a good fit. Perhaps other districts will discover it to be as well.