English Lessons: The Bilingual Education Debate

As foes try to end bilingual education, San Jose reveals two schools of thought

GABRIELA Ayala and Victor Lopez live in different worlds.

Both are Latino 6-year-olds from immigrant families in East San Jose. And both are growing up in homes where Spanish is the primary language.

But when Victor goes to Cesar Chavez Elementary School every weekday morning, his first-grade teacher greets him in Spanish.

Just three miles to the south, at O.B. Whaley Elementary School, Gabriela’s teacher speaks only English.

Which educational strategy is more appropriate — which one will ensure a better future for California’s children — is quickly becoming the state’s most emotionally charged public policy issue since last year’s debate over racial preferences.

Although the bilingual education conflict is not new, businessman Ron Unz and teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman fanned the flames this year when they drafted the “English for the Children” ballot initiative. State officials are expected to decide later this month whether the 760,000 petition signatures Unz and Tuchman submitted a month ago were enough to qualify the measure for the June 1998 ballot.

The initiative appears to be immensely popular. Nearly seven in 10 people said they would vote for the proposal in a Field Poll released last week. And Latino parents in Los Angeles have protested for the right to have their children taught in English.

If the initiative passes, it would mandate that the “overwhelming majority” of classwork in public schools take place in English. Students not fluent in English would spend a year in a “structured English immersion” class, where they would have a chance to learn English before moving into a regular classroom. Waivers could be granted only on a limited basis.

Unz says California schools are taking too long to get children fluent in English, leaving them ill-prepared to function in society.

Critics of the Unz initiative say when it’s done properly, bilingual education works. And where it doesn’t, it should be fixed, not replaced with a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Unz’s English-first approach would be a major philosophical shift in California. For decades, state education officials have urged, cajoled, even threatened school districts into teaching their students in their native language whenever possible. In some cases, the state withheld funds from districts that didn’t meet education department guidelines.

But even with that pressure, many districts have not complied. A few, mostly in Orange County, oppose bilingual education on philosophical grounds, seeing it as a failed educational strategy. Countless other districts say they simply cannot offer native-language instruction because there are not enough bilingual teachers for the increasingly complex mix of languages that students are speaking.

In fact, of the 1.4 million students classified as having little or no English skills, only about 30 percent are in bilingual classrooms.

The rest of the students either receive no special services or they are in classes where English is the primary language.

Chavez and Whaley elementary schools offer snapshots of two of the many approaches California schools are taking to address the language issue.

With a student population that is overwhelmingly Latino, Chavez has adopted a bilingual education model for many of its classes. Victor will spend the next couple of years in a classroom where most of the lessons are in Spanish, then phase into mostly English instruction as he gets older.

Whaley’s students are a virtually even mix of Latino and Vietnamese, and the instruction is almost entirely in English. To succeed in school, Gabriela will need to learn her second language as quickly as possible.

The stories of how these two schools teach children who arrive on campus speaking little or no English offer insights into the issues underlying the bilingual education debate.

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