Families, Board Split On Unz Bid

Initiative to limit bilingual classes

LANCASTER—Like it has California, a state ballot initiative that would dismantle much of bilingual education has divided the Reyes household.

Lorenzo Reyes, a banking center manager, has researched the ”English for the Children” measure spearheaded by Silicon Valley businessman and millionaire Ron Unz and thinks it’s a good idea.

”It gives parents choices. If a parent wants to stay with the status quo, there’s a provision for that,” said Lorenzo Reyes, 39, who has two children in the Lancaster School District and one at Antelope Valley High School. ”You can stay in bilingual or go to English immersion.”

The way he sees it, he did OK growing up without benefit of bilingual programs.

”My wife was tutored by way of her brothers and sisters, and so was I. There were no bilingual programs,” he recalled. ”It was either sink or swim; you either learned English or you didn’t.”

Irma Reyes, however, has reservations about the proposal, which calls for most non-English-speaking children to be placed in a yearlong program to build English fluency and then be transferred into a regular classroom.

Parents could request native-language instruction under certain conditions, but they would need the approval of school officials.

”From what I know of it, I don’t think it’s going to work,” said Irma, 35, who works as a bilingual instructional aide at Sunnydale School. ”I don’t see gathering children of all ages in a classroom is going to work for one year in an immersion class to teach them English. Each child I work with needs individual attention. I’m for a program that’s going to work.”

The Unz initiative will appear on the June 2 ballot. Although the election is months away, the measure has been the subject of intense debate with both sides weighing in on the merits of bilingual programs.

Arrayed against the measure are groups such as the California School Boards Association, California Teachers Association, Citizens for an Educated America, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and United Teachers Los Angeles.

The measure has been endorsed by the California Republican Party. High school math teacher Jaime Escalante, whose work inspired the film ”Stand and Deliver,” has joined the campaign as honorary chairman. Supporters contend polls show the majority of parents – including Latinos – want to abolish the current bilingual education system.

Antelope Valley school trustees are lining up on either side.

The Palmdale School District board will approve a resolution stating its opposition to the Unz initiative at this week’s meeting, board member Helen Acosta said.

Acosta said the Unz initiative if passed would place non-English speaking students at a disadvantage, forcing them into English-only classes before they are ready.

”Can you learn a foreign language in one year? There’s no way anyone can and really be able to speak and write it,” Acosta said. ”They don’t have the student as their top priority. They want grades to rise and test scores to be high, but yet they’re chopping them off at the legs.”

Lancaster School District trustee Andy Visokey said there’s a good chance a resolution in favor of the initiative will end up on the Lancaster board agenda, and he will support it.

Visokey said he thinks Lancaster’s bilingual programs are doing a good job, but the Unz measure will be an improvement.

”In the U.S.A., the faster they pick up the English language, the better. One year is better than three years,” Visokey said. ”I think (students) will be more than ready after one year of immersion than after three years of bilingual education.”

Visokey also said the Unz initiative will give parents a choice as to whether to place their child in a bilingual program or in an immersion course, where instruction is mostly in English.

”As long as 15 parents request bilingual over immersion, then the school would have to offer it. If you have an effective bilingual program, you’ll get 15 parents who are for it. There’s a choice aspect for it,” Visokey said.

Opponents of the initiative say it will take away control from local school boards in determining which programs work best for their children.

That has Lancaster trustee Keith Giles concerned. He is undecided on whether to support the initiative.

”I’m for the concept of teaching English as quickly as possible, (but) I don’t like the state telling us what to do,” he said.

Unz supporters say bilingual programs are not working, pointing to what they view as a 95 percent failure rate. Statewide, bilingual education programs shift only 5 to 6 percent of their students into English-only classes each year although the number of students entering such programs has more than doubled in the last decade – to nearly 1.4 million in 1997.

The state’s Little Hoover Commission in a 1993 report called for a shift away from the state’s emphasis on primary language instruction and an overhaul of bilingual programs statewide.

”The effectiveness of California’s efforts to teach English learners can be gauged by the low numbers of students who are reclassified as fluent English speakers, the high dropout rates, the lack of college applications and the dissatisfaction often expressed by parents, teachers and administrators,” the commission’s report said. ”All point to a system that has failed to meet the needs of these at-risk students.”

Supporters of bilingual education said the Unz initiative would subject those students to an untested program. Research shows it takes four to seven years, depending on the literacy of the child, to become truly fluent in another language, they add.

”It is not research-based. Our goal is for kids to be academically successful in English. A one-year program is not something that will help our students,” said Irene Yamasaki, Lancaster’s coordinator of bilingual and English as a second language services.

”For them to say that all Spanish-speaking parents want children to learn English, that’s true, but that’s with supporting primary language,” Acosta said. ”It’s not the sink-or-swim that Unz is proposing.”

In testimony before the state Board of Education earlier this month, researchers presented mixed views on the success of bilingual programs, some saying they are showing good results, while others said most students in bilingual programs either did worse or no better than non-English-speaking students given no help at all.

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