Bilingual Bonus Plan Proposed

Education: Policy would give schools more money based on the number of students moved to mainstream classes.

In new guidelines for bilingual education proposed Thursday, the Los Angeles Unified School District vowed to transfer children out of the special programs faster, promising schools the incentive of financial bonuses.

The $ 2.5 million in bonuses, to be set aside annually from state funds the district receives, would be distributed to campuses based on the number of students in bilingual programs who pass tests to move into mainstream classes.

Now, more than 300,000 students participate in bilingual education, but schools lose money when enrollment in the programs drops.

Details remain to be worked out, but the proposed new policy represents the first revision of the district’s 8-year-old bilingual guide. In the works since July, it will be reviewed at a special Board of Education meeting scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

But already the proposal is drawing praise from education officials, including state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who spoke of the need for an incentive program last summer.

“This shows initiative of the kind we were hoping districts would take,” Eastin said. “When you go out and talk to people in the field, if they’re candid they’ll tell you . . . ‘We have every incentive to keep kids in and no incentive to take them out.’ “

Bilingual education has drawn increasing fire in recent years, with more liberals joining the traditional conservative foes of having students spend years learning in languages other than English.

Los Angeles has always been a pioneer of that now-controversial approach, known as native-language instruction, which is based on research showing that students gain a stronger academic foundation if they are not immersed in English too quickly.

Yet after district Supt. Sid Thompson made getting students through bilingual programs quicker one of his major goals two years ago, the volume of students leaving grew from less than 5% to 8% this year–which exceeds the state average.

The revised master plan suggests that students not fluent in English spend no more than five years beyond kindergarten in bilingual education, if they come here when they are young, and three or four years if they arrive in middle school or high school. That goal is nearly double the two- to three-year window proposed by a variety of pending state and federal bills.

“We are listening to what the public is saying,” said Assistant Supt. Jesse Franco, Los Angeles’ top bilingual administrator. “But move them out in two to three years? That would be a disservice to students.”

But the plan also emphasizes that schools–and parents–can opt out of the programs in favor of alternatives such as English immersion instead. A similar assurance was contained in the previous master plan, but parents have long complained that the reality did not match that promise.

In fact, the situation so angered a group of parents from Ninth Street School in downtown Los Angeles that they resorted to a boycott this year and ended up with a promise of an all-English program next fall for their children.

Under the plan’s incentive proposal, the bonus money would be used for enrichment programs for the newly mainstreamed students, such as after-school tutoring, SAT preparation and career counseling.

School board member David Tokofsky, who had suggested a bonus previously, questioned whether it will be enough money to force changes.

“Will the employees read it as an incentive or will it just be an incentive on paper?” Tokofsky asked. “It’s got to be bold . . . enough to really drive people’s behavior.”

Tokofsky also suggested that the bonus be tied to tangible things, perhaps paying the salary of the bilingual coordinator who tests students or lowering the sizes of English classes for all students.

In addition to the mainstreaming drive, the proposed bilingual guidelines promise improved tracking of students through the system and comparative data on the success of students who have gone through different programs–native-language versus English immersion, for instance.

The document also groups with bilingual students, for the first time, speakers of nonstandard English–including African Americans who speak what is commonly known as black English, Latinos who speak “Spanglish” and Hawaiian students who speak Hawaiian Pidgin. Although these students are not placed in native-language classes, administrators said they could benefit from some of the same teaching approaches.

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