No Change, Gracias

Schools Plan to Keep Bilingual Programs, Despite State Offer

Despite a move to make it easier for school districts to scrap bilingual education programs, Ventura County educators said Friday they are unlikely to accept that offer, arguing that native-language instruction is still the best way to teach students who struggle with English.

The decision, handed down Thursday by the State Board of Education, even drew the wrath of bilingual education opponents, who viewed it as a political ploy aimed at stalling efforts to do away with such programs altogether.

“They are just playing a political game,” said Simi Valley resident Steve Frank, a government affairs consultant who is spearheading the Ventura County campaign in support of a statewide initiative aimed at dismantling all bilingual education programs.

“On one hand, they now understand that bilingual education is a failure, that it is a fad like the Hula-Hoop or the Slinky that now belongs at the back of the closet somewhere,” Frank said. “However, what the state board should have done is mandate that no longer will classrooms be segregated by language.”

The state board voted unanimously to allow local school districts to shed bilingual education programs without having to petition Sacramento.

The vote launches a deregulation process that eventually could free local educators to teach non-English speakers as they see fit, as long as some help is available. But across Ventura County, educators said they don’t expect to make any changes in the programs already in place for the county’s 25,000 limited-English speaking students. “We have proven that our programs work,” said Yolanda Benitez, superintendent of the Rio School District, north of Oxnard, where about a third of the 3,000 students don’t speak English well or at all.

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“We are seeing academic achievements growing in these youngsters; we’re not going to make any changes,” she said. “Unfortunately, when we talk about bilingual education, we have lost sight of the children. Regardless of whether the children are purple or pink, whether they speak Spanish or Vietnamese, they need programs that are going to help them do well in school.”

Added Joseph Spirito, superintendent of the 17,000-student Ventura Unified School District: “We’re still going to be doing what we’ve been doing. It’s successful, and we feel the program is showing good results here in Ventura. I’m just worried that some districts will choose to drop it completely, and that will be a sad day for kids.” The move is the latest salvo in a long-running battle to overhaul bilingual education. There has been a rising tide of support for scrapping the program altogether, as more and more people believe that 25 years of bilingual education have failed California’s school children and placed them at a competitive disadvantage.

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The most drastic proposal comes in the form of the “English for the Children” initiative. That measure, which will be on the June ballot, is sponsored by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz and would require virtually all classroom instruction to be in English.

According to that initiative, children who are not fluent would get about a year of special help in English before being funneled into mainstream classes. Currently, they can stay in bilingual classes for up to six years, being taught primarily in their native language.

The initiative would hold teachers and school officials personally liable for violating its provisions.

Frank argues that Thursday’s vote by the state Board of Education seeks to stall momentum building for the initiative by putting the fate of bilingual education programs in the hands of local school districts. But he predicts that move will backfire.

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“It will only add to the momentum,” he said. “The public will only see that the state board is now against bilingual education, that it’s wrong and that it doesn’t work.”

Countywide, about half of the limited-English-speaking pupils–94% of whom speak Spanish–get their first few years of instruction in their home language. Three in 10 are immersed in English-only classes, with special booster classes to accelerate their language development. About 14% receive no special attention. Ventura County educators and activists have launched a campaign to oppose the measure, saying the effort is fueled by misinformation and is harmful to non-English speaking youngsters.

But in the short term, local educators said they don’t expect this week’s decision to have any effect on the way limited-English speakers receive instruction. “We’re always looking for ways to improve the program; we don’t stop that,” said Bernard Korenstein, superintendent of the Oxnard Elementary School District where about 6,000 students receive some bilingual education services.

“But there are a lot of children who need these programs,” he said. “They’re not designed to continue a child in his or her primary language. They’re designed to teach a child to be successful in the English language by using his or her primary language to achieve that goal.”

Added Nancy Carroll, superintendent of the 2,400-student Ocean View School District south of Oxnard: “We have a great track record of success. And without these programs, a great number of these children would miss vital academic content, which would only serve to put them further behind.”

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