Marta Valencia and Irma Oregon had a common goal: Both wanted their children to learn English.
But when the time came to enroll them in kindergarten, the two Roseland parents made different classroom choices. Valencia selected bilingual education, where her children would first learn to read and count in Spanish. Oregon opted for classrooms where the teachers taught the subjects in English from the first day of school.
This June, the state’s voters will have to make a similar choice. They will decide whether to essentially do away with bilingual education, the method through which Valencia’s children learned their lessons by first becoming literate in their native tongue.
If voters pass Proposition 227, school districts will be told to use only English to teach children with limited English skills. Schools would place most of 1.4 million such California students in special classes for one year, then move them into mainstream courses.
“I think all the children need to know English,” Valencia said. But she foundered in a “sink-or-swim” English class when she moved to Fresno from Mexico at age 13, and she still sometimes struggles with the language. “That’s not the best way to learn it.”
Even Oregon, who chose the English-only classrooms for her kids, said she is unsure whether 227 is the answer. She said she wants to be certain parents have a choice of programs.
Despite such qualms about the initiative, polls show a sizable majority of voters are leaning toward 227, also known as the Unz initiative for key sponsor Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire. The initiative held a 2-1 edge in last month’s Field Poll. Sentiment appears more evenly divided in Sonoma County, where a Press Democrat Poll last month found the initiative leading 49 to 43 percent.
“English is the predominant language in the whole world right now,” voter Thomas Conway of Sebastopol said in explaining his support for the initiative. Schools, he said, need to make sure all students learn English.
Few would argue otherwise. But this debate isn’t so much about teaching English as it is about how English is taught.
Unz proposes to teach English in English. And that simple solution sounds good to most people, many of whom appear frustrated with public education in general, and more specifically with the problems of teaching and assimilating a growing influx of students from immigrant families who speak another language.
But the issue is too complicated to solve at the polls, critics contend.
The initiative has brought to the public eye a long-running debate about what’s wrong with the state’s program for English learners, and how best to fix it.
The combatants point to reams of conflicting studies to support or condemn the different approaches used in the past 30 years. It was in the late 1960s that a series of federal and state laws were enacted to ensure equal educational opportunity for students with limited English skills. In the 1970s, the state told schools to add native-language instruction “when necessary.”
Unz, a 36-year-old software magnate who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1994, dismisses all of the studies as unreliable. He maintains the state’s bilingual programs have failed the students they are designed to serve, and he seizes on the state’s own figures to back his claim: Less than 7 percent of the state’s English learners master the language each year.
“The current system clearly doesn’t work,” Unz said. “It’s time to give up the experiment.”
Unz is joined in his campaign by two high-profile allies: Jaime Escalante, the Los Angeles math teacher whose successes in teaching calculus to barrio students were dramatized in the movie “Stand and Deliver”; and Gloria Matta Tuchman, an Orange County teacher of immigrant children who is running for state superintendent of schools.
And even some who haven’t endorsed his initiative, such as Jane Zils of the Santa Rosa school board and Janet Nicholas of the state Board of Education, agree the current system of bilingual education is flawed.
The bulk of the education community, however, opposes Unz. State schools chief Delaine Eastin, the state PTA and teacher groups around California have lined up against 227.
Bilingual education supporters say the state figures cited by Unz fail to give an accurate picture of what is happening in the classroom. Bilingual teachers and administrators in Sonoma County repeatedly maintained their way is best because they are not just teaching kids to speak English, but helping them keep up with their English-speaking peers by making them literate in the language, a process that takes many years. Meanwhile, teachers must also teach English learners subjects such as math and science and social studies at the same time they are teaching a new language.
Bilingual teacher Jill Cooper of Cali Calmecac Immersion School in Windsor acknowledged that it seems “counterintuitive” for her to help her first-grade Spanish-speaking students eventually become fluent in English by speaking to them in Spanish.
“It’s a matter of getting the academics,” she said. “You think more English is better, but it’s not.”
Opponents of Proposition 227 say it would take control away from local school boards and impose one method — an inferior method, they protest — for teaching immigrant students.
“I’m tired of somebody that is not connected to this community telling us how to run our schools,” said county Superintendent of Schools Tom Crawford.
Crawford said the state’s bilingual program is lacking, in part, because California’s legislative leaders have failed for the past decade to pass needed legislation and provide more money for teaching the students.
Nearly a quarter of the state’s 5.5 million public school students have limited English skills — and that percentage keeps growing. Sonoma County’s 71,000 students include 8,200 English learners, or “limited English-proficient” students as the state labels them.
Most are not taught in their native languages.
State figures show nearly two-thirds of Sonoma County’s English learners are taught in English by instructors specially trained to help youngsters with limited English skills. Some of those students have a teacher or aide who will translate some material into their native language. Another 10 percent are taught in English and receive no special language services at all. It’s unclear why.
Just a quarter of Sonoma County’s students receive some academic instruction in their native languages — true “bilingual education.” Typically, early grades include a heavy emphasis on learning basic academic skills in the native language, with more and more English introduced into the curriculum as the students get older. Some bilingual programs in Sonoma County are “dual immersion” programs, where English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students come together and learn both languages simultaneously.
In Sonoma County, where Spanish is the native language of 85 percent of the English learners, all bilingual classes are in Spanish. Some Sonoma County schools have teaching aides who speak other languages — primarily Southeast Asian languages and Tigrinian, the language of Eritrea. Other areas of the state offer bilingual programs in Chinese, Vietnamese and a few other languages.
The approach in Santa Rosa schools, where two years ago the number of English learners ranged from just eight at Proctor Terrace to almost 314 at Lincoln, generally is to have the youngsters attend separate English classes during a portion of the school day.
At Santa Rosa’s Brook Hill School, where nearly two-thirds of the 470 students are English learners, many students receive native-language instruction in the early grades and later move into classes taught in English. Teacher Joan Sullivan works with groups of students to improve their English vocabulary. She uses such activities as word bingo or the Word Wall, where students try to guess a mystery word on the wall that best fits into a sentence. The students later read such books in English as “Amelia Bedelia.”
“We want to move them ahead to literacy,” said Principal Gary Reeves. “Once they are reading and writing, then we can switch the language, because we’ve already been teaching them English.”
The school’s approach runs counter to Proposition 227, and Sullivan said she hopes voters will reject Unz’s plan. While the state’s efforts for immigrant children may need improvement, she said, “That doesn’t mean you go back to something that failed.”
School officials around the county say they are unsure exactly what will happen if voters approve 227. But they are uniform in their belief that programs would have to be changed significantly.
In Windsor, for example, parents of Spanish-speaking students at Cali Calmecac would have to get annual waivers to exempt their kids from provisions of 227 and allow their children to continue in the immersion program. All of those under age 10 would have to spend at least 30 days in a sheltered English class before the parents could obtain such a waiver.
Director John Lehman said he believes the requirement would kill his program, but Unz disagreed.
“They could do it,” Unz said. “But if they want to continue programs like that, they’d better be preparing now. Because we’re going to win.”
Unz conceded that some programs — and particularly two-way immersion programs like the one at Cali Calmecac — can and do work. But he repeatedly returns to the state’s only statistic that measures the progress of English learners, which shows that just 6.5 percent of “limited English-proficient” students each year are redesignated as “full English-proficient.” Unz uses that figure to cite a “93 percent failure rate for bilingual education.”
Both bilingual supporters and some critics argue the redesignation data is unreliable, in large part because of the way the system has been set up. The Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency, noted schools receive more money for teaching English learners and less when the students become fluent in the language. Thus, there is a disincentive to report students as fluent.
Or, as state Board of Education member Nicholas said, the state essentially “rewards failure.”
The Little Hoover Commission wrote in a 1993 study that the educational establishment’s “single-minded pursuit” of bilingual education in California for the past two decades has been “divisive, wasteful and unproductive.”
Bilingual critics note Latino students have dramatically higher dropout rates and lower rates for qualifying for the University of California system. They also point out that the state has no reliable way of measuring how well schools are helping students learn English.
“We’re doing a miserable job,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas, a Sonoma resident and one of the leading conservatives on the state board, made the motion this month when her colleagues agreed to let school districts decide how to teach English learners. But the state Department of Education, which for years has required schools to pursue native language instruction, has yet to decide whether to go along with the state board — leaving the matter in a state of confusion. Bilingual education supporters, meanwhile, objected to the state board allowing districts to drop bilingual programs.
Nicholas said she still is studying Proposition 227.
Even some educators who oppose 227 say bilingual education has failed to live up to its promise. They argue that well-meaning people pushed the approach as a way of helping English learners catch up in academics and be able to take advantage of college and career choices available to English speakers. But it hasn’t happened.
“The worst thing I can say about the state’s bilingual program is it has perpetuated the status quo of “the haves’ and “the have nots,'” said Zils, a Santa Rosa school board member and a teacher who once taught bilingual classes.
Bilingual education supporters say it’s unfair to lay the blame for the poor performance of Latino students on bilingual education. Other factors, including poverty and the education levels of their parents, affect the performance of such students. Also, some Latino students are U.S. born and speak English, yet still drop out or do poorly in school.
What’s more, says Guillermo Rivas, the county’s director of bilingual services, look where all of the state’s pupils rank in national test scores.
“California is coming in on the bottom,” Rivas said. “We’re talking all students, not just bilingual, in many content areas.”
Many suggest that despite Unz’s talk of uplifting immigrant children, his initiative is the latest in a continuing series of ballot-box attacks on immigrants and minorities.
“We had Prop. 187, then 209 and now this,” said Rufino Rosas Jr., 23, referring to ballot initiatives which sought to deny services to undocumented residents and end affirmative action for minorities and women.
“One follows another,” said Rosas, who is working toward his credential as a bilingual educator at Sonoma State University. “It’s another attack on anything and anyone perceived as not “truly American.”
In response, Unz contends his proposal will improve the lot of immigrant children by helping them assimilate faster into the English-speaking mainstream.
“I think this campaign should be seen as a unifying thing rather than as divisive,” he said.
Statewide polls have shown strong Latino support for Proposition 227, though the numbers have fluctuated. In Sonoma County, some Latinos said they fear a return to a time when children were punished for speaking Spanish in school. Others lament that native-language support may no longer be available.
Alma Conde, now 28, came to Fort Bragg from Mexico when she was 7 and was placed in first grade at Redwood Elementary School. Neither her teacher nor anyone else at the school spoke Spanish, she said, and the only English she knew were a few numbers and, “Where is the bathroom?”
“I was lost,” she recalled. “I didn’t understand anything.”
But she had already gone through first and second grade in Mexico, learning to read and count and add and subtract in Spanish. So while her classmates absorbed those lessons, she learned English by listening to her teacher and classmates and by reading picture books.
Today, Conde teaches a mixed group of English learners and English speakers at Sheppard Elementary in the Roseland School District. Trained in a method called “specially designed academic instruction in English” and possessing a special certificate for bilingual education, Conde rarely uses her native language as she instructs the fifth- and sixth-graders in her class.
Most wouldn’t understand anyway: Only eight speak Spanish, while 14 are native English speakers, one is Cambodian, four are Laotian and three are Eritrean.
All communicate well in English. Yet 40 percent of her students are designated as “limited English-proficient.” While they speak the language, they have yet to master it.
Educators point to shelves of studies that claim children need more than a year to adequately learn English and that immigrant students fare better if they first become literate in their native language, then make the transition to English.
Outsiders, including the National Academy of Sciences, as recently as January concluded that the many studies “have proved inconclusive” on whether native-language-based or English-based instruction is superior.
Unz dismisses all studies as “garbage” created by a bloated “bilingual industry” with a financial stake in preserving its flawed system.
In Roseland, Sonoma County’s most linguistically diverse elementary school district, a variety of programs are offered for English learners. Still, some immigrant parents opt to have their children in classes where English is the predominant language, and their wishes are accommodated.
“Our goal is to create English speakers,” said Sheppard Principal Gail Ahlas. “There are more ways than one to do that.”