Schools Try New Tack in Bilingual Classes

Education: Channel islands high and Topa Topa Elementary celebrate diversity and let students study in their native language.

At Channel Islands High School in Oxnard, nearly half of 2,614 students have limited English skills.

At Topa Topa Elementary School in Ojai, only 44 of the school’s 629 students speak little or no English.

But teachers and administrators at both schools are trying innovative approaches to help students learn English while continuing to study in their native languages.

Channel Islands, Ventura County’s biggest school, also has one of the highest percentages of poor and minority students. But Channel Islands officials say they are rethinking how to teach bilingual students, and in the process are transforming their school.

The program allows students to learn in their primary language, teachers say, and also celebrates the cultural diversity among the student body, which is about 60% Latino, 14% Anglo, 13% Filipino, 5% black and nearly 7% other minorities.

Instead of relying on traditional texts that emphasize Western culture, teachers say they are pushing for diversity in the curriculum.

“The melting pot theory didn’t work,” said English and Spanish teacher Robert Serros. “We’ve got enough of the whitewash. . . . ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘Tom Sawyer’ are not relevant to Hispanic or Chicano students.”

A new course proposed by Serros, called Mexican-Chicano Literature in Translation, will be presented to the school board for approval this month. Teachers are also looking at other ways of expanding the curriculum to include more material on subjects such as the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and the life of Cesar Chavez.

“When I came to this school seven years ago, we had very few offerings for bilingual students,” said Paul Abravaya, a science teacher who heads the bilingual department. “Our numbers have increased dramatically recently.”

The emphasis on curriculum diversity is part of a statewide educational trend toward multiculturalism. In 1989, state education officials also revised their foreign language policy, saying among other things that students should learn the culture and customs of a country as well as its language.

But Channel Islands teachers say they hope to make even more sweeping changes.

“We’d like to teach the Mexican version of the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848,” Serros said. “How do Mexicans feel about that? We need to have the students find something that’s relevant to them. . . . We’re not minorities, we’re majorities. Sixty percent of students at three of our schools are Latino.”

The school is also phasing out a traditional practice of grouping students by ability and is integrating students of all levels in the same classes, said English teacher Bill Terrazas.

“It’s a subtle form of racism,” Terrazas said of the practice, known as tracking. “You would go into basic skills classes and see all minorities.”

Hueneme High School is also doing away with tracking, officials said. A report on tracking is scheduled for presentation to the board this month.

Instead of moving students into English-only classes as soon as their English becomes proficient, teachers encourage students to continue studying in their primary language, with the idea that students learn best in their native tongue.

“Instruction in the child’s primary language is unusual” at the high school level, said Cliff Rodrigues, coordinator of bilingual education for the county superintendent’s office. “It hasn’t happened on a widespread basis at the secondary level.”

Some Channel Islands teachers said their approach might be seen as radical or unacceptable at some other schools.

That approach is based in part on a similar successful bilingual program in the Calexico Unified School District on the border of Mexico in Imperial County, Channel Islands teachers said. At Calexico High, which is 98% Latino, a similar program has been lauded by educators statewide.

“What makes that district so successful is what we’re trying to do here,” Abravaya said. “The culture is respected and represented (on the staff), and they get a tremendous amount of parent support.”

Channel Islands was the first school in the Oxnard Union High School District to establish a bilingual education department, composed of faculty who look for better ways to teach students whose native tongue is not English, said Assistant Principal Joanne Black. Oxnard High also has a bilingual department.

“Some teachers just don’t like to teach the poor or the brown or the black or the Vietnamese,” Terrazas said. “At this school, teachers make it their business to know the background of their students and where they come from.”

Minorities make up more than one-fourth of the teaching staff, or 27 of the 104 teachers, said Channel Islands Principal Ken Benefield.

“The teachers here care about us,” said sophomore Marcela Sustaita, 17, a bilingual student who moved to Oxnard from Mexico last year. “They support us.”

The bilingual reforms are bearing fruit for the whole school, Channel Islands officials say.

Last school year, 37% of Channel Islands students met entrance requirements for the University of California and California State University, compared to 26.5% four years ago.

The school’s dropout rate of 3.6% last school year marked an increase from the 2.3% rate of three years ago, but it is still significantly below the statewide dropout rate of 20.2% for all students and 29.2% for Latinos.

And parent participation is exceptionally high, teachers said.

“When we have a meeting of the bilingual parents, the turnout is massive,” Black said.

At an open house last fall, more than 2,000 parents crowded into the school gym to watch students in performances from Polynesian, African-American and Latino cultures.

“By and large, some schools think of us as the ghetto or barrio school,” Serros said. But the school defies that stereotype, he said, “due to a caring principal, a hard-working staff and the spirit of the students. They really want to learn, and they’re working together.”

At Topa Topa Elementary School in Ojai, a pilot bilingual program has met with accolades from parents, despite controversy caused by a similar program in the Fillmore school district.

When Fillmore teachers began teaching Spanish to English speakers last year, some parents protested that the program prevented their children from learning in either language.

At Topa Topa, the program is voluntary. Both Spanish- and English-speaking parent volunteers help out in the classroom.

A handout given to parents interested in Topa Topa’s bilingual program cites research backing a theory that younger children have an easier time learning foreign languages.

“There are many dividends for both groups of students,” said Principal Sergio Robles. “We can almost guarantee that since we’re catching them at an early age, they won’t have accents.”

Nationwide, about 17% of public elementary schools offer foreign language instruction, but only about 5% of elementary students take the courses, according to the Joint National Committee for Languages in Washington.

Topa Topa’s program was started in response to a recommendation by the state Department of Education that foreign languages be taught in elementary school, Robles said.

In bilingual teacher Jenna Miller’s first-grade class, where nearly half of the 31 students are native Spanish speakers, instruction is entirely in English one day and in Spanish the next.

“We want to make sure everyone starts at the same place and goes forward from there,” Miller said. “I give equal prestige to both languages. That’s really key.”

Around Miller’s brightly decorated room, objects such as the clock, file cabinets, the chalkboard and curtains are labeled with their English and Spanish names.

One recent Dia de Espanol started with the Pledge of Allegiance recited in Spanish. Throughout the day, all the instruction and exercises were in Spanish, with lots of hand gesturing and demonstrations to help English speakers along. The same help is given to Spanish speakers on English-only days.

For one exercise, the class was divided into three small groups, two of English speakers and one of Spanish speakers. Parent volunteer Mirea Reyes, who speaks only Spanish, helped the Spanish-speaking students.

Reyes called the bilingual class wonderful.

“It gives them the opportunity to succeed in both languages,” she said.

Charles Summerfield, another parent helping in Miller’s class, said his son Theo, 6, had been fascinated by Spanish songs on the radio even before he started school, and is now learning Spanish quickly.

“I think it’s limiting to have a child learn in just one language,” Summerfield said. “The more a child or person is exposed to another language, the better off he is.”

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