Bilingual education has been roundly criticized for failing California’s children — blamed for high dropout rates among Latino students and for dooming children to failure because they never master English.

But researchers and educators say how well children will do in school is far more complex than just the lessons they receive in the classroom. A strong academic program is crucial, but many other factors, including family income and the parents’ education, have been found to significantly influence achievement.

That doesn’t mean children who come from poor families cannot succeed, but they do face more obstacles. Studies show they are more likely to move frequently or attend schools with less experienced teachers and lower standards for academic achievement.

One in five California children lives in poverty, according to statistics from the state Department of Education. And Latino children — who make up the vast majority of the state’s limited-English-speaking population — are twice as likely to come from poor families than white children are, according to a soon to be published paper by the California Policy Seminar, based at the University of California-Berkeley.

“These are the same kids that if they spoke English, schools would still not be dealing well with them,” said UC-Davis Professor Patricia Gandara, one of the authors of the paper. “It’s not just kids who aren’t English speakers. It’s children who come from poor homes or from communities at risk; all those groups of kids don’t do well in school.”

Even critics of bilingual education say the link between family income and academic achievement cannot be ignored.

“You can’t blame it just on bilingual education,” said Christine Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University, who helped draft Ron Unz’s statewide initiative to eliminate bilingual education. “Most of it has to do with social class and the poverty they live in. Only a little has to do with their native tongue.”

But the inability to speak English is an added burden.

According to Gandara, Latino children tend to move more frequently than their classmates. And since there is no set policy in California for how these children should be educated, a child that begins the year learning in Spanish may end the year in a class where instruction is in English only.

Kathleen LeClair, who teaches first grade at Cesar Chavez School in the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District on San Jose’s East Side, has seen firsthand how this can affect student achievement. She has often had students who struggled in her classroom because they had bounced from program to program so often.

And even though many of her students are flourishing in the native language program she teaches, she expects only six of her students to stay long enough to complete their education at Chavez, given the transiency of the school’s students.

“We have children who weren’t here because their father went to prison that day,” added Carol Garcia, principal at San Jose Unified School District’s Schallenberger Elementary School. “Kids are dealing with real life situations out there and yet we’re expecting them to be normal little students. It has nothing to do with bilingual education.”

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