Even as California voters puzzle over whether to ax bilingual education from public schools or let districts decide for themselves, most voters wonder about an even bigger question — just what is bilingual education? Polls show voters strongly favor replacing the multifaceted bilingual system with a single approach: one year of English instruction taught in English.
To many voters, the idea of holding immigrant children back from academics for a year to concentrate on learning English sounds appealing. Parents could even sue teachers who did not comply.
“It would make the kids learn from the English books, like they did when I was growing up,” said an elderly woman named Alma as she strolled past Balboa High School in San Francisco, where a third of students are recent immigrants.
“When we went to school, we had kids that didn’t speak English, and they learned fast,” said Alma, who declined to give her last name.
But when asked to describe bilingual education, which would end under Proposition 227, Alma could not. “Isn’t it having their language books translated into English?” she asked.
It isn’t. “Bilingual education” is an umbrella term for an array of programs intended to help non-English speakers learn English without compromising their academics, said Norman Gold, state manager of bilingual compliance.
“The use of two languages does not mean the exclusive use of the home language at any stage,” Gold said. “It’s never meant that at any school.”
Fewer than half of the 47,669 teachers assigned to teach immigrant children even speak a second language, according to the University of California’s Linguistic Minority Research Institute.
On Thursday, the state Board of Education voted to give school districts the option of offering bilingual education or not, reversing years of policy. It is still unclear whether this will make voters rethink their strong support of Proposition 227 on June 2.
Whatever voters decide will deeply affect the education of California’s 5.6 million pupils. Enrollment is expected to grow an average of 145,000 each year, with many coming from other nations.
One in every four students speaks little or no English.
Education officials say 70 percent of all immigrant children are taught entirely in English.
Here is how California educates its immigrant pupils, and the percentage of limited-English speakers in each program:
— Primary language instruction, 416,127 students (29.6 percent) Students take at least two academic subjects in their first language, and they take tests in that language. They also study English in English, said Gold, whose staff monitors compliance.
Under Proposition 227, classes in the student’s first language would end unless 20 parents in the same grade at the same school applied in person for a waiver each year. Parents could apply if their children already spoke English, were at least 10 years old, or were classified as “special need” after spending 30 days in an English- only class. The district’s superintendent would judge all waivers.
— Specially designed academic instruction with primary language support, 298,395 students (21.6 percent)
Social studies, math, science and other subjects are taught in English by teachers trained in the “sheltered method,” speaking slowly and using repetition, visual aids and vocabulary that English learners are likely to understand.
Bilingual teachers aides often assist, or students have academic tutoring in their first language. Students also take English in English.
Under Proposition 227, these classes would be replaced by a yearlong English class “designed for children who are learning the language,” the initiative says.
— Specially designed academic instruction without primary language support, 274,845 (19.9 percent)
Students who speak little English are taught academics in English, using the sheltered method. They get no tutoring, books or videos in their first language.
Under Proposition 227, this class would be replaced by the year of English.
— Mainstream academics with native English speakers, 220,393 (16 percent)
These classes are mainly for native English speakers. But two other groups may also be enrolled: students who have learned English but never were taken off the official list of “limited English proficient” students, and those who speak little English but who never received language help.
Until last week, when the state school board voted to let districts decide whether to offer bilingual education, schools were out of compliance with state regulations if they did not help immigrant students with academics.
“Some of these kids are doing real poorly academically,” said Gold, the state compliance monitor.
Under Proposition 227, all students would join this kind of mainstream class after their year of English.
— English as a Second Language, 158,640 (11.5 percent) Students in regular classes are given English lessons on the side.
Under Proposition 227, schools would not have to teach English after the first year.
— Parental withdrawal from bilingual education, 18,998 (1.4 percent)
Parents request no bilingual education for their children.
A final kind of bilingual education is the “total immersion” school, which is popular in the Bay Area. Elementary schools that use this method include Fiesta Gardens in San Mateo, River Glen in San Jose, Buena Vista in San Francisco and Windsor in Napa. Often, up to half of students enrolled are native English speakers who want to learn a second language.
About 100 parents have contacted the Proposition 227 campaign, worried about the fate of these schools.
“We tell them they’d have to apply for the waiver and see what happens,” said Sherri Annis, the campaign spokeswoman. She said the waiver rule would apply to native English speakers and nonnative speakers alike.
According to the initiative, California public schools that teach in English “do a poor job of educating immigrant children.”
California has not given state exams for years and never compared the performance of immigrant children to natives. But Rosita Apodaca, San Francisco’s bilingual education director, said her school district has made the comparison and come up with surprising results.
Students in the city’s bilingual education programs greatly outperformed native English speakers on math tests in middle and high school. On reading tests, middle school bilingual students outperformed the native speakers, and in high school, they were close behind on the 99-point scale.
“Students who come from other countries are very serious about their studies and diligent about learning English and academics,” Apodaca said of the test scores.
At Balboa High, dozens of students had been through the district’s bilingual program in the early grades. The teenagers were born in the Philippines, China, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Jordan, Russia and elsewhere.
The students, who didn’t want their last names used, said they were perplexed about the attempt to end programs they say taught them English. “If it didn’t teach us English, we’d be clueless, said Cesar. “You learn in both languages,” said Ligeia. “When I came here, I didn’t know how to speak English,” said Melchior, copying down a list of vocabulary words on the blackboard: cohesion, articulate, adverse, adversary, adversity, accept, except, emphasis. “Now I do.”