Alfredo Contreras scans the tiny after-school community center in one of Oceanside’s oldest barrios. He singles out a Spanish-speaking teenager with several years of experience in bilingual programs.
“A 10th-grader who cannot a complete sentence in English,” he says. “These kids are not learning English the way they should be. They’re not learning enough to catch up in the long run.”
Contreras coordinates after-school and English programs at the Americanization School in the largely Latino neighborhood east of Interstate 5 and south of Mission Avenue.
Daily reminders—kids speaking broken English or no English at all—have convinced Contreras that the very programs set up to help non-English speakers are failing them.
And failure is why Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz says he created the “English for the Children” initiative to dismantle bilingual education. The hotly debated measure would require public school instruction to be conducted in only English unless a parent specifically requests bilingual instruction. Non-English speakers would spend the first year of classes in what Unz calls “sheltered English immersion” classes.
About 650,000 signatures have been collected since the campaign kicked off in July, spokeswoman Sheri Annis said. The campaign needs 433,269 valid signatures, 5 percent of the state’s registered voters, by Friday to qualify for the June ballot.
Proponents of bilingual classes, in which a child learns core subject matter in his or her native language while acquiring English, are hot on the trail of the initiative and are ready to fight to retain the program.
Lisa Platt, a bilingual coordinator for the Vista Unified School District, said she sees successes on a daily basis. But she worries that people will support the initiative when they see the words “English for the Children,” she said.
And she’s concerned with the way campaigners and pollsters present the issue to the public. A Los Angeles Times poll recently found widespread support for the Unz initiative, especially among Latinos.
“(But) if you asked, ‘Do you want to do away with all bilingual education?’ I think the results would be very different,” she said.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding with what this initiative would do for the kids,” Platt said. “It’s throwing out the baby with the bath water. I think the results would be catastrophic.”
When Platt informed the district’s bilingual advisory council about the Unz initiative, the reaction was pure shock, she said. “They were wondering how we are going to educate our children.”
The initiative comes on the heels of Sen. Dede Alpert’s failed bilingual education bill, which would have given school districts the authority to choose between bilingual or immersion programs, and held districts accountable for students’ progress.
“If we didn’t get something prior to the Unz initiative, we risk getting something like the Unz initiative,” said Lisa Giroux, a legislative aide to the Coronado Democrat. “The initiative route is one that she knew would happen. Dede thinks a bill is a much wiser way to go.”
Alpert intends to reintroduce the bill—for the third year in a row—in January, Giroux said.
1974 case mandates special assistance
In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered schools to provide special assistance to non-English speakers after 1,800 Chinese students sued a San Francisco school district. The court found the schools in violation of the Civil Rights Act by placing non-English speakers into regular public school classes.
School districts across the state quickly responded to the lawsuit and developed bilingual education programs.
Nearly 1.3 million public school students in California today are classified as having limited proficiency in English—triple the number from 1982. Bilingual programs cost more than $300 million annually, the state estimates.
About 7 percent, or 97,000 of California students classified as limited-English proficient attend school in San Diego County, with 25,500 in North County. San Diego County’s numbers are third in the state behind Los Angeles County with 40 percent and Orange County with 10 percent, said Lauri Burnham-Massey, a state Department of Education spokeswoman.
Unz, who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Pete Wilson in the June 1994 Republican primary, and his supporters are making appearances across the state on radio and television and in newspapers. The campaign has posted a Web site featuring stories and other tidbits about the initiative.
“When you look at the current system, it’s very bad,” Unz said in an interview. “When you look at bilingual education, it’s a little bit of a misnomer. It’s typically a name given to Spanish-only classes.”
“The best thing we can do is to teach our children English,” he said.
Educators and researchers say it takes five to seven years for non-English speakers who have had two to three years of schooling in their native language to reach the 50th national percentile on standardized tests in English. For students with no prior schooling, it takes seven to 10 years.
Unz believes students should be able to learn English in several months, not nearly a decade. He said those theories mean a kindergarten student would not grasp the English language until high school.
Language of computer age
Unz’s volunteers and paid signature-gatherers are staking out shopping malls and grocery stores in search of support as Friday’s deadline nears. Betty Wilkinson of Lake San Marcos joined the initiative campaign by offering a monetary contribution—she wouldn’t say exactly how much—and talking about it with her friends.
“English is the language of the future, certainly of the data bank one has to know to become a pilot,” she said. “It’s the language of the computer age. They speak English all over the world.”
But educators like Vista Unified’s Platt say they have seen how kids “sink” in strict immersion classes. After graduating from college, Platt recalls witnessing the results of bilingual education in a Santa Cruz County
While her district offered dual immersion—in which Spanish speakers and English speakers learn each other’s languages but receive core instruction in their native language—a school down the street immersed limited-English students in English-only classes.
Platt’s district discovered that Latino parents who had enrolled their kindergartners in the immersion courses were transferring the children to the dual immersion classes after a few years.
“These kids could talk up a storm, but it was your communicative-type language,” said Platt, who taught fourth grade at the time. “They weren’t academically proficient.”
There are good bilingual programs and there are bad programs, which admittedly are in need of reform, Platt said.
But the programs are essential to the success of non-English-speaking students.
Contreras, the Oceanside after-school instructor, disagrees. He cites his own successful experiences as a Spanish-speaking boy growing up in Tucson, Ariz. He was immersed in English in school and was prohibited from taking Spanish classes even as electives.
“Look at me,” Contreras said, “look at my brother and all the other people my age who were given straight English instruction.
“These kids will learn the Spanish in their Spanish-speaking homes,” he said. “They should be learning English in school.”