OCEANSIDE, Calif. – California educators are learning that children who speak little English do learn English when they are taught solely in the language. But it’s taking a lot longer than voters wanted.
Oceanside Unified School District, touted as a success story in California’s move away from bilingual education, is seeing limited-English speakers pick up the language at roughly the same rate that experts have long predicted for learning a second language.
That’s at least three years – a slower pace than the one year suggested in a successful 1998 ballot initiative that pushed Oceanside and all other California school districts to eradicate bilingual education.
Arizona voters will decide next month on a ballot measure modeled after California’s, requiring English-immersion instruction for limited-English public school children. A year to catch up is also the time suggested in Arizona’s initiative, known as English for the Children-Arizona.
Arizona proposition supporters often use Oceanside’s success story to bolster the cause for ending bilingual education, programs that offer some instruction in Spanish and other native languages of students.
Oceanside, a district north of San Diego, is seen as the California district that most thoroughly implemented Proposition 227. Its rising test scores have earned national attention and it is led by a superintendent who was once a proposition foe as founder of the California Association for Bilingual Education.
Last year’s limited-English second-graders – the first group with only English immersion instruction – scored in the 32nd percentile, or lower than two-thirds of the children taking the test, on the Stanford 9 reading test. That’s a leap from two years before, when second-graders ranked in the 12th percentile on reading and other grades were in the single digits.
“This is contrary to everything the bilingual education industry has been saying for 25 years,” said Superintendent Kenneth Noonan of Oceanside.
Bilingual education supporters say the best way to teach limited-English students is to first instruct them in their native language and gradually use more and more English. In Tucson, students remain in bilingual education programs for five to seven years on average. In another district with many limited-English speakers, Florida’s Miami-Dade, the average is three years.
In Oceanside, less than 5 percent of the students made the switch to English fluency in the first year of the English immersion, according to state data.
The ballot initiative allows students to stay in English immersion classes for more than a year but it states they should only need that much time.
“I don’t think it would have ever been realistic for a one-year program,” said Suni Fernandez, a second-grade teacher at Oceanside’s Laurel Elementary School who was featured in an Arizona Daily Star series in April.
“A lot of things they are slamming us for now are problems we had in bilingual education.”
This school year, Oceanside added English immersion classes in higher grades and “bridge” classes for children who are on the brink of becoming fluent.
Children will stay in English immersion classes – in which teachers use hand signals and extra phonics and grammar to instruct the language – until they achieve higher oral test scores. In “bridge” classes, teachers use mainstream, grade-level materials, but add more vocabulary to lessons to bring students up to speed.
That was one of the deficiencies found in a recent harsh report by the California Department of Education, which also cited Oceanside for failing to monitor students’ progress, run alternative programs or set up advisory committees.
Some teachers are still trying to emphasize the importance of bilingualism, even though they are forbidden from teaching lessons in Spanish.
Jo Brinkman, a first-year teacher who instructs a third-grade class of children with low English skills, often tells her students that bilingualism is beautiful. She tells them “Si Se Puede” – “Yes you can.” She answers questions when addressed in Spanish and sometimes explains things in Spanish when she feels it’s necessary.
Children are free to speak Spanish on their own.
As a Spanish-speaking child, Brinkman saw that Spanish was not valued. Then, she had to relearn the language in college. Brinkman said she remembers that her Spanish-speaking classmates would urinate in their seats because teachers forbade them from getting up until they spoke English.
She was against Proposition 227, but she supports the program at Laurel, where she used to serve as a mentor.
“I want them to learn English, but I always want them to keep their home language,” Brinkman said.
Many of her students are behind, like Daisy Ortega, who was also featured in the Star series in April.
Daisy, a third-grader who is old enough to be in the fourth grade, likely will be tested to see if she needs special education help. Many children, like her, would have been behind regardless of their first language and regardless of the language they learn in, said Fernandez, Daisy’s second-grade teacher.
Daisy is progressing in English since last year, when she moved here from Mexico. She had skipped a year in school. Then, Daisy usually worked alone because she was so far behind her classmates in basic skills and English. Now in third grade, Daisy is the first one to raise her hand and passed with 100 percent on spelling tests with basic words, Brinkman said.
Daisy said she is reading hard books – the ones that don’t have pictures.
Although Oceanside is facing a harsh review from the California Department of Education, Noonan remains positive about the English program, saying he thinks these students would have never advanced so far in bilingual education.
“It has surprised everybody,” Noonan said. “We had all been conditioned to believe that it couldn’t be done.”
* Sarah Tully Tapia is a former education reporter at the Star working in Orange County, Calif.