Bilingual battle lines drawn in schools

Fresno County report advocates limiting bilingual process to two years.

If there is one thing opponents in the battle over bilingual education agree on, it’s this: To succeed, students must be proficient in English.

That’s probably the only thing.

They differ — fiercely at times — on how long it takes students to become proficient in another language, and how well bilingual education is working.

Locally, the debate over bilingual education got a little louder with this month’s release of a community group’s report on ways to improve public education.

The group, called the Commission on the Future of Education in Fresno County, offered nearly 40 recommendations on how to mend what they say is a failing educational system.

One of its more controversial suggestions is to give limited English-speaking students a maximum of two years of bilingual instruction before putting them in English-only classrooms.

That differs radically from the theory of bilingual educators. They claim it takes students from five to seven years to become proficient in another language — meaning they can speak, write and read it with ease.

Why did the commission recommend a change?

Commission members said they heard from both sides in the bilingual education debate. They said that some of Fresno County’s 47,334 limited English-speaking students are wallowing in ineffective bilingual classes.

It’s hard to get countywide statistics on the number of students who are successfully completing bilingual programs and moving on into regular English education. Students who do so are called “redesignated.”

But the commission used some state numbers to show that, in general, bilingual education is failing. It pointed The Pacific Research Institute, a nonprofit education think tank, that reported that the number of “redesignated” students statewide dropped from 13.3 percent in 1982 to 5.7 percent in 1995.

“We believe in offering every student an equal opportunity, and I don’t believe that putting students in a Spanish-speaking class for five or six years is helping students,” said Anne Speake, a commission member. “I just think it is a little insulting to suggest that these kids can’t learn if you put them in a total (English) immersion program.”

The commission’s recommendation appears to mirror the statewide effort to revamp bilingual education led by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz. The initiative, Proposition 227, will be on the June ballot.

Proposition 227 would require California schools to push limited English-speaking students into English-only classes after one year of bilingual education.

Speake isn’t convinced that it takes up to seven years for students to adequately learn English.

She operates a private school that teaches English to foreign-language speakers. Her students range in age from 12 to adult.

“I have seen how total immersion works, and I am a believer in that as the proprietor of an English-language school,” Speake said.

Speake acknowledges that her program differs from public schools in that her staff teaches English in concentrated doses. No other subject is taught.

But supporters of bilingual education supporters say the commission’s recommendations and Proposition 227 are potentially harmful.

“Giving students just two years worth of bilingual education just doesn’t make sense,” said Rose Patron, head of Fresno Unified’s multilingual/multicultural department. “You can’t learn enough English in just two years to understand all the core subjects. I think the commission showed that there wasn’t anyone on it that could deal with the research in this field.”

Fresno State English professor Kathyrn Hitchcock said the issue of bilingual education has been a thorny one. She agrees that, in some cases, bilingual education is failing.

Clear goals are needed for each grade level, and tests should be devised to measure what is being learned, she said. “My hope is that with all this controversy about bilingual education that people will begin to dialogue and do some serious study about what is working,” she said.

Teachers in the Kerman Unified School District, west of Fresno, think they have the answer.

In that district, limited English-speaking students who enter as kindergartners are put in an accelerated bilingual program called Excell.

Kindergarten students are taught the basics such as simple math and writing, mostly in Spanish. Spanish is used less frequently as the students move through the grades. By the fourth grade, they are put into English-speaking classes.

Recent school-wide tests on science and math show that fourth-grade Excell students are scoring about the same level as non-bilingual students.

Infobox — Limited English-speaking students in Fresno County

School Percent

Alvina Elementary 24.5

American Union Elementary 13.1

Burrel Union Elementary 24.6

Caruthers Elementary 10.6

Caruthers Union High 42.0

Central Unified 13.7

Clay Joint Union 8.5

Clovis Unified 10.1

Coalinga/Huron Joint Union 30.2

Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified 39.5

Fowler Unified 25.0

Fresno County Office of Education 20.2

Fresno Unified 33.1

Golden Plains Unified 55.4

Kerman Unified 37.2

Kings Canyon Joint Unified 33.1

Kingsburg Joint Elementary 8.3

Kingsburg Joint Union High 11.0

Laton Joint Unified 37.8

Mendota Unified 48.4

Monroe Elementary 37.4

Orange Center Elementary 18.2

Pacific Union Elementary 35.6

Parlier Unified 68.6

Raisin City Elementary 36.6

Riverdale Joint Union 26.9

Sanger Unified 19.4

Selma Unified 32.0

Sierra Unified 0.3

Washington Colony Elementary 12.7

Washington Union High 20.7

West Fresno Elementary 51.4

West Park Elementary 27.2

Westside Elementary 53.4


Source: Fresno County Office of Education

Infobox — The report

The Commission on the Future of Education in Fresno County recently released a report on changes it says must be made to improve local education.

The commission organized its report into six “critical issues”: Reform and Restructuring; Per- formance Expecta- tions; Governance; School-to-Work; Bilingual/Multicultural Education; and School Safety.

This series of articles looks at each of these six areas. This installment focuses on bilingual/multicultural education.

The Bee welcomes comments about the report. Write to Education reporter Bob Rodriguez, 1626 E. St., Fresno, 93786; or call 209-441-6327; or fax, 441-6436; or e-mail metro

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