Lawmakers want to scrap bilingual classes

Immigrant students would be forced to learn in English-only classrooms.

Long before he moved to Woodburn and entered politics, state Rep. Cliff Zauner bought a Woodburn radio station and bolstered its Spanish-language programming.

Now the rookie Republican lawmaker wants Oregon schools to go the opposite direction ? remove Spanish and other foreign languages from classrooms of immigrant students.

Duplicating the ?English-immersion? initiatives passed by California and Arizona voters since 1998, Zauner and state Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, are proposing bills to scrap bilingual education in Oregon?s public schools.

Schools would no longer instruct students partly in their native languages to help them become fluent in English and keep up in other subjects. Instead, schools would be forced to teach migrants and other newcomers exclusively in English.

?I read a lot of statistics on California and Arizona,? Zauner said. ?The quicker they learn English, the better off they are. This will help them in their grades and testing.?

Starr and Zauner?s proposal, which gets its first hearing in the Senate Education Committee in early April, is not expected to be signed into law this session. But it could spark a heated debate on the proper way for Oregon to teach its immigrant youths. It also has the potential for opening a sharp ethnic divide here, as it did in California.

Thirty percent of Zauner?s constituents in House District 38 are Hispanic. More than half the students in the Woodburn School District are Hispanic or Russian immigrants still mastering English.

?This legislation is totally against our philosophy, what our school district is trying to do,? said Anthony Veliz, the lone Hispanic on the Woodburn School Board. ?It does surprise me that this gentleman is proposing it, considering where he lives and who he represents.?

Tatyana Schevehenko, a mother of 10, is worried about the bill, because she? s noticed a big difference in her children?s achievement levels under bilingual education.

?One started in just the English program and she was struggling all the way through,? Schevehenko said via a Russian interpreter. ?Even if she speaks some English, it?s still difficult for her to pick up on the reading.?

Her two younger children, who are instructed in a mix of Russian and English, are doing much better. ?The younger ones are stronger readers in English as well as Russian,? she said.

The premise of bilingual instruction, backed by considerable research, is that young students learn best when they master basic literacy skills in their native language. Then they can gradually transition to English without losing concepts and falling behind in social studies, science and other subjects.

?Much of the research says that it takes three to four years for English competency to develop to such a level that students can learn the content in English,? said Emily de la Cruz, Portland State University education professor.

Differing views

Those pushing English-only base their proposals on ?ideology and opinion,? not research into how children learn, said Gloria Mu?iz, English as a Second Language specialist with the state Department of Education.

Zauner and Starr point to contrary research, and argue students proceed faster if immersed in an English-only environment.

Bilingual education is a ?waste of money,? Starr said. ?I think we have scarce resources and we should invest those in programs that produce the greatest benefit for the greatest numbers.?

Bilingual education backers say Oregon needs more of it, not less. More of the state?s immigrant students are being instructed in English-only techniques than true bilingual instruction, said Sharrilyn Rawson, program and student evaluation specialist for Woodburn School District. ?If the money?s being wasted, it?s being wasted on English-only formats,? she said.

Statewide numbers

Oregon schools enroll more than 43,000 students classified as English Language Learners, which means they still are gaining fluency in English as a second language.

Federal anti-discrimination laws require schools to accommodate these students? special needs, so they aren?t hopelessly lost in class and fall behind in their studies. But neither state nor federal law describes exactly how those students shall be taught.

The state of Oregon provides schools a 50-percent funding bonus for each student. But the state does little monitoring of school district programs, and doesn?t require that all the extra money be spent on those children.

The result: a hodgepodge of programs that vary greatly, even among schools within the same district.

Teacher shortage

Many districts have a shortage of teachers fluent in the language of their immigrant students. Their programs might be as rudimentary as pulling students out of class for an hour a day with a teacher?s aide, who may or may not be fluent in the students? language.

Some schools place the bulk of their immigrant students in English as a Second Language classes. There students are pooled with their peers, to get more individual attention from their teacher. But the instruction often is mostly in English.

In the early-1990s, Woodburn was having dismal results with a program that relied on pulling students out of class for special help, Rawson said. ?They got up in the grades and they could not meet high academic standards in English.?

The district spent 18 months evaluating different approaches to ESL and bilingual education, and sent teams to visit successful programs in other states. Based on its findings and independent research, the district launched an intensive bilingual program in 1996-97 for many of its Russian and Spanish-speaking kindergartners. The students begin learning mostly in their native tongue, then each year more English instruction was introduced.

Test results so far are inconclusive, but Woodburn?s English Language Learners are generally scoring on par with their counterparts statewide.

California tests cited

California?s early test results after passing its 1998 English-only initiative altered the debate on bilingual education. Starr and Zauner point to those test scores as evidence that English-only works with immigrant students.

?We were curious about that too,? Rawson said. But after closer inspection, it appeared the early media accounts of test score gains were misleading.

California was shrinking class sizes in the early grades at the same time it was phasing out bilingual education and putting more emphasis on reading, Rawson said. Scores were up for students pushed from bilingual into English-immersion programs, but they also were up for children whose parents petitioned to keep them in bilingual programs. ?The bottom line is, everybody?s scores were up,? she said.

Zauner said he hopes to stimulate debate on bilingual education, and assures that parents can still choose to ?opt out? and keep their children in bilingual programs.

?I?m not trying to take anything away from the Spanish kids,? Zauner said. ?I just want them to learn quicker.?

Strict interpretations

But Starr and Zauner?s twin bills, Senate Bill 919 and House Bill 2861, are stricter than the California initiative. After many Hispanic parents exercised an opt-out provision in California?s English-only law, Arizona?s bilingual education critics wrote a tougher initiative to minimize the number of parents sticking with bilingual education. The Oregon bills borrowed much of Arizona?s language word for word.

The twin bills state that Oregon students must be taught in an English immersion program ?not normally intended to exceed one year.? All textbooks and other materials must be in English. Teachers must teach in English and may only use ?a minimal amount of the child?s native language when necessary to communicate with the child.?

Parents choosing to opt out must visit their children?s school and provide annual written consent.

During the visit, parents must sit through a presentation on the different options. There is specific language barring districts from pressuring parents to stick with bilingual instruction.

In California, some Hispanic parents complained their children weren?t learning English under the old system, even though the bulk of the community opposed the English-only movement.

Zauner said his constituents, including Hispanics, also are ?mixed? on his bill. However, others question that.

?I haven?t heard a groundswell of Latino people saying we need to do this,? said Sen. Susan Castillo, D-Eugene, the lone Hispanic in the Legislature. ?There may be some people out there but I haven?t talked to them.?

Woodburn support

Hispanic and Russian parents tend to support the program used in Woodburn, Veliz said. Many worry the English-only idea sends a bad message to youth that their language isn?t valid in the classroom, he said.

It?s unlikely Starr can get his English-only bill out of the Senate Education Committee, which he chairs. Rep. Tom Hartung, R-Cedar Mill, a swing vote on the panel, said he supports bilingual education, and the committee?s Democrats are expected to oppose it.

But Starr said this is only the beginning of the battle, likening it to his crusade to get a charter school bill passed in 1999. ?It took us four sessions to get that bill signed into law,? Starr said. ?It may take time.?

Steve Law can be reached at (503) 399-6615.

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