Three weeks into the school year, Adriana Davila took her son Omar out of La Escuelita’s bilingual first-grade class in Oakland and transferred him to an English-language classroom.
As the 6-year-olds in the new class formed a wiggly pack on the floor, they loudly counted by fives to 100. Omar, however, huddled in the back next to his mother, who repeated the English numbers into her son’s ear.
While the other children were learning to count by fives, Omar was still struggling to learn the English version of numbers he already knew in Spanish.
Omar can speak basic or playground English, but like 1.38 million California school children — or one-fourth of the state’s total elementary and secondary students — he can’t read, write or communicate effectively in English for his grade level.
One-third of those children are in bilingual programs where at least two subjects are taught in a language other than English.
“We live in a country where English. My culture is Mexican and I want him to learn Spanish, but I will do that part at home.”
With the educational fate of thousands of children in the balance, bilingual education has created a dramatic rift among teachers, parents, policy makers and members of the Hispanic community on both sides of the battle.
Supporters say efforts to dismantle bilingual education is an attack against immigrant communities or part of an English-only crusade.
But according to bilingual education opponents, Omar’s mother is among a growing group of Hispanic parents who are tired of their children not learning English in the state’s public schools.
“Bilingual education in California means monolingual instruction, mainly in Spanish,” said Ron Unz, the founder of a controversial bilingual education state ballot initiative. “It would be a very good thing if (students) were fluent in two languages, but often they come out illiterate in two languages. I’ve always been somebody very skeptical of bilingual education.”
Unz’s skepticism pushed him to create the English for the Children initiative, which proposes to dismantle bilingual education in California. The Silicon Valley millionaire said his campaign has collected 425,000 of the 433,269 signatures needed to qualify the question for the June ballot.
If the initiative passes, students would be immersed in English-based classrooms unless parents can prove to the local school district that a bilingual education program would benefit their children. The school district would then have the final say.
That would reverse what happens now. Currently, children are often placed in bilingual education by the schools, and parents who don’t want that must formally request that they be placed in English immersion classes instead.
If the initiative does makes the ballot, Unz and his supporters likely will face an onslaught of opposition from Hispanic civil rights groups.
Eighty percent of registered voters surveyed in a Los Angeles Times poll released this week indicated they would support English-only instruction in public schools. Only 18 percent opposed the measure.
A kindergarten at work
Across the La Escuelita school yard from Omar’s English-based class, it’s Spanish Day in Daniel DeYoung’s bilingual kindergarten class.
“Izquierda,” DeYoung says as the mostly Hispanic children enthusiastically chant the Spanish word for left. “Derecha,” the energetic teacher then repeats, literally sliding across the floor to the right.
The next day, DeYoung will again teach the left-hand, right-hand lesson, but in English, reinforcing the concept.
“I like to make them attend to English,” DeYoung says, explaining why the bilingual class is taught in both English and Spanish on alternate days. “I like to have it multicultural.”
But not all bilingual classes use as much — if any — English, Unz said, adding that he backs his position with anecdotal information.
“Although bilingual education may mean many things in theory, in the overwhelming majority of California schools, bilingual education in actual practice means monolingual, native-language instruction with English being introduced to children only in later grades,” Unz’s campaign literature states.
While research varies on the point, opponents of bilingual education argue that the quickest way for children to learn English is to immerse themselves in the language as soon as they start school.
“I think when the child comes here, you need to learn English,” said Leila Gonzalez, an Oakland teacher’s aide who signed the English for the Children petition. “The only time I was allowed to speak Spanish was after school.”
In the cornerstone of his campaign, Unz has blasted bilingual education by saying it fails 95 percent of the time. He claims that only 5 percent of children who are learning English become fluent in the language each year.
“Things are 10 times worse than I ever realized,” Unz said. “I had just been very misinformed of just how bad things were.”
The 95 percent failure rate has been repeated by members of the California Republican Party, which voted to endorse the initiative at its Anaheim convention late last month.
While even bilingual education supporters acknowledge the program has not always been implemented effectively, the 95 percent failure rate is a misleading and outdated statistic, say program administrators and Hispanic community leaders.
In fact, 6.7 percent of the children learning English in California became fluent last year. In 1993, the figure was 5 percent.
“Under a well-implemented bilingual education program, it takes about five years to transfer into a mainstream class,” said Joseph Jaramillo, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Yes, in some cases bilingual education has not worked as intended. It’s due to things such as inadequate resources, untrained teachers, low parental involvement.”
Unz’s campaign slogan also fails to mention that only 30 percent of the children who aren’t fluent in English are actually in bilingual classrooms.
According to the California Department of Education 1996 Language Census, the majority of English language learners were in English-based classes.
“When we look at California and compare what is going on in the state … then we find that less than a third of students (who aren’t fluent in English) are in what minimally would be called bilingual education programs,” said Reynaldo Macias, director of the Linguistic Minority Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In California, more than 100 languages are represented among residents.
Only about eight to 10 languages are used in bilingual education classes, according to the California Department of Education. Spanish is the language most often used in bilingual education.
But Unz’s use of the redesignation rate as an indication of failure implies that a 100 percent success rate would mean every child learning English should become fluent each year.
That’s not realistic, language experts say, whether the students are in bilingual or English-immersion classrooms.
“There’s no country in the world and no language in the world where you can get a non-proficient language speaker proficient in a language in a year,” said Norman Gold, manager of the state Department of Education bilingual compliance unit.
Teaching the English language is only one objective of bilingual education programs.
When bilingual education was adopted 25 years ago in California, parents and educators were concerned that if children couldn’t communicate fluently in English, they would fall behind academically in English-only classrooms.
Concern over keeping pace
While children such as Omar do succeed in English immersion environments, many are unable to pick up enough of the language to academically keep up with their peers, La Escuelita principal Roberto Villa said.
Language experts say it takes five to seven years to become fluent in a second language. Unz argues that children in the primary grades can pick up English in a few months to a year.
Bilingual educators, however, say teaching a child to read the word “dog” is difficult if the child doesn’t know what the word means.
“You may claim it’s not sink-or-swim, but the de facto reality is it is,” Villa said. “(The kids) retreat. They’re essentially excluded from learning because they can’t understand.”
Many Hispanic community activist groups have disputed Unz’s claims that most Hispanic families don’t want bilingual education.
Unz cites a recent Los Angeles Times poll of Latino residents in Orange County that indicated only 17 percent of those surveyed want children taught in their native language until they are ready to learn English.
But another question on the poll showed that 74 percent opposed English-only classrooms as soon as children enrolled in school.
The seemingly contradictory numbers indicate parents want their children taught English as soon as they enter school, but they also want their children to keep up with other subjects, said Jose Arredondo, executive director of the Oakland-based Spanish Speaking Citizens Foundation.
“We have found that most people do enjoy having their children in bilingual education,” he added. “It’s not that (parents) don’t want their children to learn English, it’s that they don’t want their children alienated from learning other things while they learn English.”
A political move?
Bilingual education supporters say the Unz movement is less about education than politics.
Unz, who received 34 percent of the Republican vote against Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994, has poured more than $100,000 of his own money into the initiative.
Some say Unz is pushing another bid for governor. Others criticize the campaign as an attempt to disguise an English-only political movement.
“I think (the initiative) is very conservative,” said Josefina Alvarado, director of the Centro Legal de la Raza educational empowerment program. “I think it’s definitely an English-only kind of movement and I think it’s disgraceful to base his movement on alleged Latino support.”
Unz’s co-sponsor, Gloria Matta-Tuchman, is a former board member of U.S. English, a group devoted to English-only legislation requiring government on all levels to use only the English language. Unz said he supports many aspects of the English-only movement.
In addition, U.S. English endorsed the initiative last week. “The English language is the most important thing a child needs to learn in school,” said the group’s chief executive officer, Mauro E. Mujica, in a letter sent out to the media Oct. 13.
Unz and his supporters argue the measure is not an anti-immigrant initiative, that it actually would put choice back into the hands of parents.