During a recent visit to Idaho, I proudly defended California’s bilingual
education program and its commitment to the educational needs of students from diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, only to discover upon my return that the bilingual education bill had been vetoed.
For the past five years I have been principal at Abraham Lincoln School in Anaheim where approximately 60% of the students are limited English proficient (LEP). All of the school’s 25 classrooms have bilingual programs in which students who are learning English are integrated with those who are fluent in English. At Lincoln School, the bilingual education program works and is successful. The community supports the program and student achievement is high. State and district scores of tests given in English bear this out. Lincoln School is only one example of many similar success stories throughout the state and nation.
Now, because of the governor’s veto of the bilingual bill, local school districts will not have the proven state guidelines for their bilingual programs. I urge the school districts in Orange County to continue to use the past guidelines and maintain programs that include the use of the students’ primary languages.
Bilingual education is an important instrument in helping students with language problems achieve English proficiency and participate in our mainstream English-speaking society. In bilingual programs students are taught English at the same time they are being taught other subjects in their primary language. This enables them to keep abreast of the rest of the students in their classrooms and not fall behind.
If we believe what we are teaching in our schools is important, then we wouldn’t want approximately 47,000 LEP students in Orange County and 600,000 statewide to miss out on what is being taught in the classrooms.
Educational research proves that the use of the primary language in the educational programs of students with limited English accelerates their acquisition of English. If a student was not being served by a bilingual
education program, or was only receiving English as a second language instruction, that student would not be comprehending school subjects, or gaining literacy.
Primary language instruction provides literacy skills and access to the knowledge of subjects while the student is being given an English language program. For example, if you went to France and did not know the language and enrolled in a course in nuclear physics, a subject you knew nothing about, you would be lost not knowing the language or the subject. You would find it difficult to impossible to compete and succeed in this class. This is exactly the situation in which the limited English proficient students find themselves.
On the other hand, if you had the opportunity to first gain an understanding of physics in your own language and gain the basics of the French language, you would have a chance to succeed.
Bilingual education provides that opportunity and experience from actual programs demonstrates that the more ideas and subjects students comprehend in their primary languages, the more they will understand what is being taught in English; thus the more English they will understand.
One reason for the success of the Lincoln School bilingual program is the implementation of guidelines provided by the state and district that are uniform and based on sound research. Another is parental involvement through parent education, committees and conferences. The parents know that at the school there is someone who cares about their children and can communicate in their primary language. One of the major concerns of the parents is that their children learn English to live productive lives.
At Lincoln School teachers will continue meeting the educational needs of the limited English proficient students with English as a second language lessons and primary language development. But there is no guarantee that every district in Orange County will provide the same quality bilingual program. Districts will still be obligated to provide bilingual instruction under mandates resulting from federal court cases guaranteeing students with limited English skills equal educational opportunities. But with the veto of the state bilingual bill, what will be missing are the state guidelines based upon research that have been available to districts in the past.
In the next few months the fate of many students will be decided as districts, without the state guidelines, choose to continue with their existing guidelines or opt for other less proven methods of teaching the LEP student.
My fear is that well-meaning and dedicated board members and administrators in Orange County and elsewhere will feel pressured by political issues, misunderstandings, other budget priorities or a few misinformed teachers to implement bilingual education partially or not at all. What they must do is continue with the proven bilingual programs that result in high student achievement and success.
Today’s students with limited proficiency in English will in the near future make up the majority of California’s population and be major factors in its economic stimulation. They are tomorrow’s employees and consumers and must be well prepared to meet the requirements that will be even more demanding than when we entered the job market. Bilingual education will guarantee that and help keep our economy healthy.
Stella L. Marquez is a high school principal in Anaheim.