In one classroom at Alexandria Avenue School near Hollywood, it is possible to find Armenian students who speak Russian, Laotians who speak Lao, Filipinos who speak Tagalog and Salvadorans who speak Spanish — all taught by a teacher who speaks to them mainly in English.
Several doors away, the students are learning reading and writing in Spanish, even though a few of the students understand only Korean. And in another room, a teacher fluent in English and Korean is matched with a class that includes youngsters not only from Korea, but also from Vietnam, Guatemala and Thailand.
These wildly diverse classrooms, which could exhaust a battalion of United Nations interpreters, all exist in the name of what is broadly termed bilingual education — a confusing and passionately debated program with an uncertain future in California.
The state law requiring such programs has been defunct for eight months now, although most districts continue to offer them. And for Democratic lawmakers, who form the core of the program’s support in Sacramento, reviving the law this year promises to be an uphill battle. Watchful bilingual advocates say some districts already are trying to reduce services to students who speak only limited English.
The California Assn. for Bilingual Education, in a report to be issued today, makes a strong case for bilingual education — the basic idea that students should learn in their native language before they tackle subjects in English. Its survey of seven programs in the state — including the Los Angeles school district’s highly touted Eastman program — found that students can learn in their native language without hindering their progress in other subjects. The study found that within three to six years students in these programs were reading and writing in English and scoring as well on tests as the average native English-speaking student of the same age.
Later this month, the Los Angeles school board is expected to reaffirm its support of the controversial program with a new bilingual master plan. As the district with the nation’s largest number of limited-English-speaking students and most diverse array of languages, Los Angeles has attracted the attention of educators everywhere.
Ten years ago, the overwhelming majority of students who came to school in California with little or no knowledge of English were Spanish-speakers from Mexico, with a smattering of pupils from other Latin countries, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Today, public school enrollment, particularly in Los Angeles, is surging with students from countries torn by revolution and economic instability — students who, everyone agrees, need to learn English in order to succeed in school and join mainstream society.
Variety of Nationalities
There are ever-larger numbers of Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Koreans, Armenians, Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong. And the list goes on. In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, 160,000 students — nearly 30,000 more than just three years ago — speak a staggering 81 languages.
The biggest problem most districts with these youngsters face is that teachers who know second languages — not only Spanish or Korean but Farsi or Armenian or Khmer — are rare. Many teachers refuse to learn a second language, and public sentiment against bilingual education runs high, as evidenced by the overwhelming victory in 1986 of Proposition 63, the English-only initiative that was widely viewed as anti-bilingual education. Some believe that passage of that measure contributed to Gov. George Deukmejian’s veto last July of an extension of the state’s bilingual education requirements.
Vague Federal Law
This left districts to follow a vague federal law that requires only that students who do not speak English should get an equal education. But it does not say how districts should accomplish this.
California’s law, considered one of the most far-reaching, spelled out very strict requirements that districts must follow.
An issue that cuts to the heart of how people feel about politics, ethnicity and what it means to be American, bilingual education is likely to incite more battles this year, in Sacramento and in school districts around the state.
Some critics say that the sheer diversity of languages in districts such as Los Angeles is the best argument for English-only schooling. With so many languages in so many classrooms, they argue, bilingual programs simply are impractical. Of the 81 languages spoken in Los Angeles schools, only seven are served by bilingual teachers.
Its critics, including U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett, often cite continued high dropout rates among Latino pupils — which exceed 50% in some areas — as evidence of the program’s failure. They also point to the low rate at which limited-English youngsters successfully complete bilingual programs. In 1986-87, only 7% of the Los Angeles school district’s 118,000 limited-English students in elementary grades learned enough English to be assigned to all-English classes — 3% fewer than in each of the two previous years. Among junior and senior high school students, 11% were “reclassified” as English proficient — also 3% below the previous year.
In Los Angeles district schools, native speakers of Farsi and Japanese had the highest rates of transferring to all-English programs last year, while students whose primary language was Spanish or Khmer transferred at the lowest rates.
Other critics say the programs hurt native English speakers and rely too heavily on ill-trained teachers aides.
“I’ve got real problems with the aides doing the job of the teacher,” said Pam Bruns, the parent of an English-speaking student at Pacific Palisades Elementary School. “There is no quality control on the aides. Bilingual theory may be fine, but only if they have trained personnel.”
On the other hand, Maria Christina Garcia, whose son attends South Gate Junior High School, typifies the view of many parents who continue to strongly support the program.
“When I came to this country 27 years ago, we didn’t have bilingual education,” she said. “It was quite hard for me personally as a child. I would get upset and say I’m not going to school because I don’t understand anything they’re saying there. It made me feel so bad. Our students are very lucky to have bilingual education.”
And, said Adolfo Figueroa, a fifth-grader at 10th Street Elementary School near downtown Los Angeles, “I think bilingual education is good, because we could pass our tests and understand what the teacher was saying.” Figueroa, who spoke only Spanish when he entered school, was able to read English by the third grade.
Test scores show that students lacking English fluency score well below average on standardized district tests of reading and mathematics, ranging an average of 10 to 35 points below their native English-speaking peers.
Once the limited-English students have learned enough English to be placed in all-English classes, however, they begin to close the achievement gap. The progress is particularly notable in mathematics, where bilingual program graduates score as well as or better than native English speakers on almost every grade level.
New Master Plan
Los Angeles district officials say the reason fewer students are being transferred to all-English programs is because the standards were toughened. Too many limited-English students were moved too soon and, as a result, failed courses. Board member Leticia Quezada said she hopes the new master plan will address this problem by measuring students’ overall academic progress, instead of just their speed at learning English.
The Los Angeles school district offers three types of programs to limited-English students: the standard bilingual classroom, an individual learning plan and English as a second language.
In the standard bilingual classroom, students learn reading and writing in their primary language, while instruction in math, science and social studies is given either in simplified English — using a method called sheltered English — or in their primary language. Students also learn to speak English and gradually how to read and write it.
Most limited-English youngsters in elementary grades are in standard bilingual classrooms.
When fewer than 10 students at one grade level require bilingual help, students learn to read and write from a teacher who speaks English and receives help from a bilingual aide. Usually, this approach, the individualized learning program, is the only way to serve youngsters who speak the less common languages, such as Samoan and Khmer. Twenty-three percent of all limited-English students are in this program.
On the secondary level, most students lacking English fluency are placed in an English as a second language (ESL) program, in which instruction during the entire day is conducted primarily in English. The teachers are specially trained to use such techniques as slower speech, more body language and frequent use of objects to illustrate a lesson.
In addition to these three basic models, the Los Angeles school board over the next several weeks will consider several additional types of programs, including the increasingly popular “immersion” method.
An immersion program used for several years in the San Diego Unified School District was cited in the California Bilingual Assn. study. In that program, all subjects are taught entirely in Spanish through the third grade, with English used 50% of the time in grades four through six. An unusual aspect of the program is that it teaches fluency in two languages: In addition to Spanish-speaking students who are learning English, it includes native-English speakers who are learning Spanish.
Another proposal expected to be included in the master plan is an expansion of the Eastman Program, which is used in 28 Los Angeles district schools. Under this approach, Spanish-speaking and English-speaking youngsters are kept separate for much of the school day so that Spanish-speaking students can receive instruction in academic subjects such as math and social studies primarily in Spanish and shift to English only when they have reached a sufficient level of comprehension. They mix with their English-speaking peers during art, music and physical education.
Better Use of Teachers
Another feature of the Eastman Program that supporters say make it particularly attractive is that it uses bilingual teachers more efficiently. The district has 1,478 fully certified bilingual instructors, or about 120 fewer than it had three years ago. As a result, teachers aides provide much of the primary language instruction.
Some board members, including Jackie Goldberg and Alan Gershman, favor establishing financial incentives to encourage teachers to learn the languages that are most in demand in the district. Goldberg also would like to see the district establish a language training academy as well as a career ladder for classroom aides to become bilingual teachers.
Last year, more than 100 district teachers were threatened with transfers for refusing to agree to learn a second language. Recently, the first of several grievances filed by such teachers was settled in the teachers’ favor.
More English Favored
Second-language requirements were a factor in the vote last summer that resulted in the adoption by the local teachers union of a new policy favoring intensive English teaching over bilingual education.
Monolingual teachers assigned to bilingual classrooms were expected to learn a second language within six years under the state law that was allowed to expire last year. According to an opinion issued by the state attorney general’s office last month, the state no longer has the authority to require such teachers to take the classes needed for a bilingual teaching credential, but districts may continue the practice if they wish.
Many teachers and linguistics experts say it takes much longer than six years to become fluent in another language, however, and some teachers may never reach the goal, particularly if they are tackling a language that is not based on the Roman alphabet.
PRIMARY LANGUAGES These are primary languages among students with limited
English proficiency in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Language Elem. Second. Special Total Educ. Afghan 8 30 1 39 Afrikaans 2 2 Amer.Indian Cherokee 1 1 Hopi 1 1 Navajo 2 2 Amharic 14 20 34 Arabic 193 116 13 322 Armenian 438 362 41 841 Assyrian 28 20 2 50 Basque 3 3 Bengali 14 4 18 Bulgarian 6 5 11 Burmese 12 10 22 Ceylonese 4 2 6 Chinese Cantonese 1,607 772 36 2,415 Mandarin 134 136 4 274 Taiwanese 57 59 5 121 Toishanese 46 20 66 Other Chinese 310 186 15 511 Creole 3 21 1 25 Croatian 6 3 2 11 Czech 10 7 17 Danish 1 2 3 Dutch 2 2 Farsi 519 453 27 999 Finnish 3 1 4 French 50 28 5 83 German 19 13 2 34 Greek 18 5 23 Guamanian 2 2 Gujarati 3 32 2 37 Haitian Creole 2 2 Hawaiian 3 3 Hebrew 229 173 5 407 Hindi 59 28 7 94 Hmong 6 6 Hungarian 41 13 2 57 Ibo 2 2 Icelandic 1 1 2 Indonesian 34 22 1 57 Language Elem. Second. Special Total Educ. Italian 32 16 11 59 Japanese 63 92 11 166 Javanese 2 2 Khmer 624 331 12 967 Korean 1,745 1,206 38 2,989 Kurdish 2 2 Lao 61 51 4 116 Latvian 1 1 Lithuanian 1 1 2 Malay 14 2 1 17 Melanesian 6 2 8 Nepali 1 1 Norwegian 6 6 Punjabi 39 26 1 66 Pashto 10 10 20 Philippine Ilocano 31 12 2 45 Pilipino 868 491 48 1,407 Visayan 9 5 14 Polish 47 17 64 Portuguese 33 29 62 Romanian 61 31 4 96 Romany 2 1 3 Russian 70 36 3 109 Samoan 102 19 2 123 Serbian 3 1 4 Serbo-Croatian 8 3 2 13 Sinhalese 4 4 8 Slovak 3 1 4 Spanish 108,355 31,035 4,156 143,546 Swahili 2 2 Swedish 9 2 11 Thai 192 153 4 349 Tibetan 1 1 Tongan 18 9 1 28 Turkish 16 3 1 20 Urdu 56 22 2 80 Vietnamese 1,008 827 42 1,877 Yoruba 4 3 7 Yiddish 1 1 Other 60 22 2 84 Total 117,704 37,035 4,521 159,260
Based on Elementary, Secondary, and Special Education Bilingual Program Surveys (Forms 20, 21 and 23), February, 1987.
BILINGUALISM IN LOS ANGELES SCHOOLS A breakdown of English language skills among all students in Los Angeles Unified School District (1986-87): Students who are native English speakers Secondary: 23%
Non-native students fluent in English Secondary: 13%
Students with limited English skills Secondary: 7%
Total enrollment in bilingual programs Year Students 1986-87 159,260 1985-86 145,209 1984-85 134,171 1983-84 127,192 1982-83 121,005
Percentage of school district students gaining English proficiency through
bilingual programs: Year Elementary Secondary 1986-87 7% 11% 1985-86 10% 14% 1984-85 10% 11% 1983-84 11% 11% 1982-83 12% 11%
How 180 district sixth-graders performed after an average of three years of
bilingual programs (maximum score, 999) Reading Reading Math Math Vocabulary Comp. Computation Concepts Bilingual 651.9 688.6 706.3 671.8 Classmates 660.5 690.7 703.4 670.5
Certified bilingual elementary teachers by language group (1986-87) Armenian2
SOURCE: L.A. Unified School District