One out of every four children in California has a limited knowledge of English. On June 2, their world could change.
Proposition 227 is asking California voters to eliminate bilingual education programs, and create one-year classes where students with limited English skills would undergo intensive instruction in the language.
The 1.4 million students targeted for the English instruction cannot understand the language well enough to keep up in school, and after the one year, they would be placed in regular classes, except under special circumstances. In contrast, most bilingual education programs gradually teach English over several years.
While many local school districts have programs to help students with limited knowledge of English, only the Mt. Diablo Unified School District has bilingual education programs where the curriculum is taught in more than one language and where passage of the proposition would have the greatest impact.
Linda Rondeau, assistant director of curriculum and instruction for the district, explained that 12 percent of the district’s 35,000 students receive some sort of language assistance.
“Teaching the English language is the first goal of any program,” said Rondeau. “Even if the subject isn’t English, such as math or history, teaching English is always a part of it.”
The bilingual education program introduces the language gradually. The only other language in which instruction is given is Spanish. With bilingual education, students take the same curriculum and subjects as their peers but in Spanish, with more and more English introduced.
At the beginning, “80 to 90 percent” of the lessons are taught in Spanish. The teacher uses more and more English each year, and by the time students reach the fifth grade, “they are bilingual,” Rondeau said.
“Being bilingual is not a disease. It is an advantage to success in the 21st century.”
The advantages of learning English is not the issue. The ballot measure language states that immigrant parents are eager to have their children learn English.
But ballot supporters argue that schools are doing a poor job of it, by spending too much money and too much time. They believe that children can easily grasp English by being immersed in an English-speaking environment, such as a regular classroom.
“With this change, the students would start learning English,” said Fernando Vega, honorary chairman of English for the Children, a group supporting the proposition.
The Mt. Diablo school district also offers programs that place students with limited English in regular classes, which is what Proposition 227 would do with most students after one year of intensive English.
There is also primary language support, where teachers help students in their native language, whether it’s Tagalog, Cantonese or Korean. Other local school districts, such as Walnut Creek and Martinez, have similar programs, which would remain largely untouched by Proposition 227.
Walnut Creek has 187 students, out of 3,247, in language development programs; Martinez has 197 out of 4,308 students.
“Bilingual education worked for about one year,” Vega explained, “then students started to fall behind. They are not learning.”
Statewide, approximately 40 percent of the students with limited English are taught their lessons in English, but the curriculum is specially designed for students who don’t speak English well. Approximately 30 percent are taught in their native language in bilingual education classes, and the remaining 30 percent are taught in regular classrooms.
Vega cited a UC-Riverside study that claimed it takes students in bilingual education programs 10 years to properly master English, when they are receiving more Spanish than English.
With passage of the proposition, students would receive an intensive one-year lesson, almost entirely in English.
But many people fear the effects of such a rigorous curriculum.
“This isn’t about treating all kids equally,” insisted Rondeau. “It’s about treating kids fairly.
Regardless of what happens in June, Rondeau said the district’s “intent is to do what is best for children.
“It’s an issue of equity and meeting the needs of all students. We have gifted and talented students, and we have students with learning disabilities, who all need differentiation. This is not a homogeneous, one-size-fits-all education. That’s not reality.”
Reality will set in June 2, when California’s voters decide the future for children with limited English.