LOS ANGELES, May 9—The Los Angeles School Board has approved a master plan for bilingual education that is expected to tilt the national debate strongly toward teaching non-English-speaking students in their own language.
The plan was approved overwhelmingly Thursday by the seven-member board, which voted on individual components. The plan calls for teaching most courses in students’ own language until they learn English, beginning next school year. They will expand on programs that are now a mix of classes given in foreign languages and intensive English-language courses in which students get help from part-time bilingual teachers’ aides.
Developers of the plan, which had no organized opposition here, said it would keep students from falling behind in their studies, which is a major problem where immigrant students are taught other subjects only after they have mastered English.
The Los Angeles plan confirms a shift to bilingual education, said Mercedes Toural, bilingual education supervisor for Dade County schools, where 29,000 students speak limited English.
Reaction of Florida Leader
”The goal has always been for students to become entirely functional in English,” she said, of those who support teaching students in their own language. ”But it’s clear now that academic progress must continue while students learn English. It’s not enough to become English proficient but to fall behind in content.”
Opponents of extensive bilingual education say that it could lead to segregation of immigrant children, delayed learning of English and ultimately, to country splintered along language lines.
Proposed by board members as a model for schools nationwide, the Los Angeles plan also calls for annual bonuses of up to $5,000 to attract 2,500 more bilingual teachers and for expanded bilingual instruction in secondary schools.
While similiar to bilingual systems in Dade County, Fla., and elsewhere, the Los Angeles plan and its development have been closely watched by educators across the country as an indicator of the direction of the bilingual debate.
Diversity in Los Angeles
The Los Angeles school system, second in size only to New York’s, is perhaps the nation’s most ethnically diverse, with 82 languages spoken by its 600,000 students. Of those students, 163,000 speak little or no English, school officials say.
Of those not fluent in English, 90 percent speak Spanish, 2 percent Korean, 1.5 percent Cantonese and 1 percent Vietnamese. Cambodian and Armenian are among the other languages.
Paradoxically, the Los Angeles plan comes on the heels of a report indicating a first-time drop in the number of non-English speaking students coming into the city’s schools. This school year, 2,500 such students enrolled, 1,000 less than expected. Officials are uncertain about the cause of the decline.
To finance the expanded bilingual education, the board plans to spend an additional $20 million the first year above the $93 million already allocated for bilingual education. The total city school budget for the 1987-88 year was $3.2 billion.
The bilingual debate was sparked by a United States Supreme Court ruling in 1974 that non-English-speaking students are entitled to special language training by public schools. A California bilingual program set up soon after was allowed to expire last year by Gov. George Deukmejian, who said he wanted to encourage school districts to set up their own systems.
Model Set Up in 1982
The expanded bilingual plan is based on a model set up in 1982 at the Eastman Avenue Elementary School, a large school in a Hispanic neighborhood where half the students speak no English.
Students are taught mathematics, science, social studies and reading in their home language. But the pupils learn art, music and physical education along with English-speaking students or in special ”simplified English” classes. English itself is taught as a foreign language.
In 1986 the Eastman system was expanded to seven other schools, where students since have shown marked improvement in standardized achievement test scores, administrators said.
Eastman’s Principal, Mirta A. Feinberg, finds that is no surprise. ”Almost all immigrant dropouts have learned to speak English well, but they have limited educational skills,” Mrs. Feinberg said. ”They lose the motivation to learn, they lose confidence, if they’re forced to study at first in a language they don’t understand.”
Under the Eastman system, most children from immigrant families make the transition to full English classes by the fourth grade, she said. By then, she added, most were also able to keep pace academically, partly because their parents could help them study in their native tongue.
The Los Angeles bilingual plan also encourages teacher aides, immigrant instructors and bilingual students to become bilingual teachers. Bilingual programs for preschool and gifted children are to be set up, as well as counseling programs for bilingual students.