Three years after voters said English should be the primary language in California’s classrooms, many educators in the Northern San Joaquin Valley still believe it is best to teach immigrant children in Spanish.

But an analysis of test scores for second-, third- and fourth-graders in 25 area school districts shows that students made the greatest gains in schools that dropped their bilingual programs.

The voters delivered their mandate with Proposition 227, which was informally known as the “English- only” initiative. Many school districts now use a waiver process to keep bilingual programs alive.

Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley businessman who authored the initiative, said rising test scores show that children can thrive in an English-only environment, even if they do not know what the teacher is talking about in the first few months of school.

“The way you make them bilingual is to teach them English,” he said.

Critics say rising scores are no surprise, because the tests are given in English, and wonder if the gains can be maintained when students move to junior high and high school.

Cecelia Cobb, a fourth-grade teacher at Fairview School in Modesto, said the new law is a blow to Spanish-speaking children who now learn to read and write in only one language.

She said the English-only mandate forces teachers to waste a precious resource that could give the youngsters an edge later in life — their innate ability to master two languages at once.

“Five years ago, this class would have been completely fluent in both languages,” said Cobb, who now uses lots of gestures to get her points across to some students.

Proposition 227 says language-minority students should receive a year of intensive English instruction before moving to mainstream classes. Bilingual programs are allowed if parents request a waiver, but only if a child is 10 years or older, already knows English or has special needs.

Before Proposition 227, 29 percent of the state’s 1.4 million English learners were taught in their native tongues. By the 1999-2000 school year, that figure had dropped to 11 percent.

Test scores for language-minority students trail behind those of native English speakers, no matter what style of instruction they receive.

But in the last three years, the scores rose.

The Bee looked at the results of the reading portion of the Stanford 9 — a standardized exam given to students in grades 2 through 11 — in medium and large school districts in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties.

On average, schools that retained bilingual programs showed smaller gains in reading than those that switched to English-immersion. Schools that never had bilingual programs showed the least progress with language-minority students.

In the last three years:

Schools that eliminated bilingual programs showed on average a 12.5-point gain for second-graders, a 5.9-point gain for third-graders and a 4.2-point gain for fourth-graders.

Schools that retained at least part of their bilingual programs showed on average a 7.8-point gain for second-graders, a 5.8-point gain for third-graders and a 0.7-point loss for fourth-graders.

Schools that never had bilingual programs showed a 5.8-point gain for second-graders, a 5-point gain for third-graders and a 6.5-point loss for fourth-graders.

To Douglas Mitchell, director of the School Improvement Research Group at the University of California at Riverside, the notion that test scores would rise if students were taught in English is a no-brainer.

Also, it is the wrong question to ask, he said, because the rationale for bilingual education never had much to do with test scores.

“If you worry only about Stanford 9 English language achievement test scores, the answer is to teach them in English,” Mitchell said. “Will they continue to have higher test scores in the fifth, sixth or seventh grade? Those questions simply aren’t answered.”

Bilingual education, created in the 1960s as the result of civil rights upheavals, is supposed to be a bridge. Students are taught to read and write in their primary language, then transfer their knowledge into English.

It builds confidence, supporters say, because students can be successful the day they enter school. It also shows newcomers the school respects their various cultures. And it gives each youngster an academic base on which to build.

“The stronger you are in your first language, the stronger you are going to be transitioning to another language,” said Paul Guevara, director of special projects for the Merced City Elementary School District, which has one of the most extensive bilingual programs in the region.

Grayson School, on Stanislaus County’s West Side, became a charter school — allowing it to set its own rules — so it could maintain its bilingual, English-Spanish approach.

Grayson Principal Alice Roth said: “If we have done our job, they don’t have to learn how to read again. They simply have to learn how to read in a different language.”

Fifty-six languages are spoken by California’s students. Historically, most bilingual programs have been set up for Spanish-speakers, who make up 83 percent of the state’s English learners.

Supporters of bilingual education say the long-term payoff is more important than modest increases in elementary school test scores. Bilingual critics say rising test scores in English-immersion programs are clear signs of progress. Both sides agree the debate has as much to do with ideology as results.

Overall scores remain low

Unlike the bilingual advocates, Unz believes the assimilation of immigrants, which was the norm in the early 1900s when waves of Eastern European immigrants came to America, is the proper goal of the education system.

“Children get their culture from their families and their neighborhoods,” he said. “They don’t get it from the government.”

Unz launched his English for the Children campaign after he read about garment workers who wanted the Los Angeles Unified School District to teach their children in English.

Previously he dabbled in conservative politics, and even challenged then-Gov. Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary. He runs a financial services software company in Palo Alto.

“When parents have to carry picket signs to make sure their kids learn English, that’s ridiculous,” Unz said.

Despite recent increases, test scores for limited-English speakers remain low, no matter what style of instruction they receive.

Most experts agree that it takes three to five years for a student to speak fluently, and four to seven years to master academic English.

And test scores alone can be misleading.

Consider Shaffer School in Atwater, Fairview School in Modesto and Osborn School in Turlock. The schools have similar student bodies, but use different approaches, and get different results.

At Shaffer, students are immersed in English, and teachers use simple language and lots of gestures.

The school turned to an English-only approach in 1995, shortly after Castle Air Force Base closed and three years before Proposition 227 became law.

The campus that had been full of officers’ children became a haven for immigrants who often speak Spanish or Hmong at home.

The teachers went back to school, so they could learn to work with second-language learners. English learners stay after school to work with tutors, attend summer sessions and get one-on-one help from a reading specialist if they fall behind.

Test scores are soaring.

In 1997-98, 25 percent of second-graders still learning English reached the 50th percentile on the Stanford 9, the score that is considered average. By 1999-2000, 46 percent of students posted at least “average” scores.

In May, Shaffer was one of 43 schools in California — and the only one in the region — to receive a Blue Ribbon School award from the U.S. Department of Education.

Principal Mona Adkins does not think her school’s success comes down to English instruction alone. But she thinks it helped.

“If you start the English early, then they have a better chance,” she said.

At Fairview, students can take classes in English or Spanish.

About 28 percent of English-learning students enroll in bilingual classes, down from 39 percent in 1997-98.

Teachers spend a portion of their days developing English skills, but do most academic work in Spanish. Students typically transition from mostly Spanish to mostly English lessons in the third grade and are placed in mainstream classrooms in fourth grade.

“We’re still running a bilingual program, except now the parents have to sign waivers,” said Rosie Espinoza, a first-grade bilingual teacher. “Before, we would decide what was best for them.”

Fairview’s second-graders did not fare as well as their peers at Shaffer, but third-graders still learning English showed impressive gains.

In 1997-98, only 3 percent of the school’s third-graders posted “average” or above scores on the Stanford 9. By 1999-2000, that had risen to 41 percent.

Principal Rob Williams said interventions from literacy specialists and after-school tutoring have made the difference.

He said both methods — English-immersion and bilingual — work well.

“It’s just parent choice,” Williams said. “It’s what parents value.”

At Osborn, English- and Spanish-speaking students can enroll in a dual-immersion program.

Teachers speak in Spanish in the early grades, and gradually introduce English. Students are expected to read and write in both languages after about five years. About 65 percent of the school’s English learners are enrolled in the two-way program, down from 70 percent when Proposition 227 became law.

Yolanda Sanchez, 11, did not speak English when she started kindergarten, but is comfortable in both languages today. The fifth-grader remembers watching her English-speaking classmates struggle in the beginning.

“In kindergarten, most of them didn’t know how to speak Spanish,” she said. “Now, they’re really good speaking Spanish.”

Ryan Clay, 11, said he did not feel comfortable with Spanish until the third grade. Today, the sixth-grader can surprise the vendors at the taco truck.

“Their eyes will get wide and they’ll say, ‘How did you know that?'” he said.

Osborn’s students can communicate in both languages, but scores on the English reading test remain low.

In fourth grade, when students receive half of their instruction in English and the other half in Spanish, only 5 percent of the English learners reached an “average” score on the Stanford 9. About 26 percent of all students at the school made that mark.

However, school officials said scores on Spanish-language exams are well above the national average. They said English-learners will do better in the upper grades, because they will be able to read and write in both languages.

“It gives them a foundation for literacy,” first-grade teacher Terry Becker said.

Can students keep up?

A look at test scores alone would favor Shaffer and its immersion approach.

But experts who favor bilingual education believe the real story will be told years from now.

Wayne Thomas, a researcher at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who has studied English learners for the U.S. Department of Education, said students placed in immersion programs will have trouble later keeping up with their peers, who also have rising test scores.

He said they would do better if they had bilingual or dual-immersion classes in elementary school.

“With the passage of another three to five years, it will become painfully obvious to all that Prop. 227 has been associated with achievement gap widening, and California will revisit this policy decision by necessity,” Thomas said.

Unz said he has heard this criticism for years, and does not buy it.

In local schools that eliminated bilingual programs, gains made by English learners exceeded or kept pace with those of the total student body over the last three years, according to The Bee’s analysis.

Students in bilingual classes also kept pace with their peers, but posted smaller overall gains.

In schools that never had bilingual programs, the test scores of English learners trailed. Those schools tend to have fewer language-minority students, and higher overall test scores.

Lynn Jamison, director of state and federal programs for Modesto City Schools, said his district has maintained many of its bilingual programs because a one-size-fits-all approach will not do.

Some children pick up English quickly, he said, while others need Spanish so they do not fall behind.

“I think what we were doing in Modesto City wasn’t dramatically changed by 227,” Jamison said.

But Unz, who puts his faith in numbers, is watching districts, such as Modesto, closely. He said he thinks waivers have been granted too easily and are not simply a matter of parental choice.

Under Proposition 227’s rules, teachers and administrators who refuse to instruct in English can be held personally liable. Unz has promised to take his case to court if the test scores continue to rise.

“Once some cases move forward, the numbers of waivers will drop dramatically,” Unz said. “All the waivers become illegal.”

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at 578-2338 or [email protected]

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