Foes clash on bilingual education

City schools program is praised, criticized

To its students and teachers, bilingual immersion is an example of what’s right with education in the Sacramento City Unified School District — a program that teaches Spanish-speaking students how to read and write.

But to the Sacramento City Taxpayers’ Rights League and its leader, accountant Mark Whisler, the program is “holding students back” by its approach.

The two sides met head-on Monday night at the school board, where participants in bilingual education came to demonstrate their progress and Whisler called for the program’s elimination.

Throughout California, the issue of bilingual education is a hot one and voters will cast ballots in June on Proposition 227, which would largely eliminate bilingual education in public schools statewide.

Monday’s Sacramento City controversy stems primarily from the program’s approach to reading instruction, which has Spanish-speaking students learning first in their native language before learning in English.

The program, launched four years ago, now serves about 300 students at Fruitridge, Edward Kemble and Bowling Green elementary schools. Participation is voluntary and requires parental permission.

The goal is to make students bilingual and biliterate in Spanish and in English, said Linda Ventriglia, director of the district’s Center for Research and Teaching Excellence.

“Students only learn to read once,” Ventriglia said in a written report to district officials. “Research indicates that it is best for students to be instructed to read first in the language they speak.”

Test results suggest the immersion program is working, Ventriglia said.

But Whisler, whose group last year led opposition to a $225 million Sacramento City school bond measure, contends that teaching kids initially in Spanish dooms them to failure. “I’m not against a program that teaches English in the morning and Spanish in the afternoon,” he said before Monday’s meeting. “But not to teach kids English at the earliest possible moment is wrong.”

The best time for children to learn a second language is between infancy and 5 years old, Whisler said, citing a recent news report.

“So every day that you don’t teach a kid English, you put them at a disadvantage,” he said. “Every day that they don’t learn, it’s harder for them to learn.”

Superintendent Jim Sweeney, interviewed before Monday’s meeting, said he was “surprised and disappointed” by Whisler’s statements.

He also questioned Whisler’s knowledge of the bilingual program, noting that Whisler’s letter to the district noted a “proposed plan” when none is anticipated.

“If Prop. 227 is approved, and if it holds up in the courts, the (immersion) program will be discontinued,” Sweeney said. “(But) we won’t be asking someone from the Taxpayers’ Rights League for advice.”

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