Separate, Unequal and Yet Necessary?

More schools are segregating bilingual students because of tight staffing and desire for instruction in native language. But even backers fear isolation and inequity.

SERIES: BILINGUAL BACKLASH. A closer look at immigrant education. One in an occasional series

SAN FRANCISCO—In an essay taped to the door of her fourth-grade classroom, Stacey Chun writes about her best friend, Jennifer Ann Price, who is black: “I don’t care about her skin color. I treat her the same as my Asian friends. The only thing different is I speak English to her.”

As they giggle together in a bilingual class taught partly in Chinese at Garfield School, the two girls from opposite sides of the city seem to embody multiculturalism at work. But this fall, Stacey and Jennifer and other San Francisco public schoolchildren like them will find their friendships separated by classroom walls.

In an extreme reaction to a quandary faced by districts throughout the state, school Supt. Bill Rojas has banned English-speaking students from the city’s bilingual elementary school classrooms. His justification: test scores showing that the 600 black students placed in classes designed for children who speak Spanish or Chinese lag far behind black students attending regular classes.

Thus, the school district in one of the nation’s most diverse and liberal cities has officially endorsed segregating its immigrant students while they try to learn enough English to join the mainstream.

Such are the complexities of bilingual education in the 1990s.

Rojas’ decision formalizes a statewide trend toward separating bilingual program students from English-speaking children of all races, despite a push in the 1980s to integrate classes after decades of separation by language.

The return to segregated classes is prompted by a dearth of bilingual instructors and an increasingly controversial belief that teaching children first in their own language improves their ability to learn in English later.

But most everyone acknowledges that the separate classes can lead to academic inequities and social tensions, and make immigrant children feel isolated or singled out.

In San Francisco — which like most of the state’s urban districts is predominantly Latino, African American and Asian American — class size requirements have prompted officials to augment small bilingual classes with English-speaking students who — because of demographics and court-ordered busing for integration — most often are black.

“We would go and visit schools and find three African American students in a classroom of 27 Chinese students,” Rojas said. “I’d see a teacher trying to talk multilingually. . . . I’d say, ‘Aren’t (the English-speaking students) getting less?’ And she’d say, ‘Yes.’ “

As debate over bilingual education rages across the state, some educators applaud Rojas’ action as a noble attempt to rescue English-speaking students whose academic progress had been sacrificed in the district’s effort to fill empty seats in bilingual classrooms.

But school principals, faced with the prospect of implementing the order, worry that it could hamper integration goals.

“These students come from totally homogeneous communities,” said Sandra Leigh, principal of Alvarado Elementary, which is primarily black and Latino. Three-quarters of Alvarado’s Latino students are taught in bilingual classrooms, and placing those classes off-limits to blacks will create “even more distance” between the races, Leigh said.

Rojas is the first superintendent in the state to endorse segregation by edict, but similar divisions have evolved quietly in other districts since a state requirement that one-third of the students in bilingual classes be English-speaking lapsed in 1987.

At almost any school with a significant population of limited-English students, the results show on the playground. There, children of all ethnicities may play foursquare together before school, but when the bell rings, they line up by color and file into separate classes. After years of such separation, many older children do not even mix on the playground.

Separating children based on the language they speak poses worrisome questions not only about playtime, but about class time.

“Can separate ever be equal for children who are not white and wealthy?” asked Jeannie Oakes, vice chair of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, in a speech to bilingual advocates earlier this year. “For those of us who support bilingual, bicultural education, this presents an enormous dilemma.”

Extensive research by Oakes into the progress of Latino students in public schools has shown that they are consistently routed into the least academic courses of study, beginning in elementary school. That so-called “tracking” is worse for bilingual-program students, she said, because they are pigeonholed as low-achieving early on.

“There is ample anecdotal evidence about the watering down of academic curriculum in segregated bilingual programs,” she said. “So when kids are able to transfer out (of bilingual classes), they don’t have the good academic foundation to succeed in college prep.”

Parents, teachers and minority rights advocates are concerned not only about the potential for academic inequities, but the social tensions resulting from segregation of bilingual classes.

“There’s a lot of fear on the part of Hispanic kids toward African American kids because they’re not mixing in normal ways,” said a bilingual teacher from a southeast Los Angeles elementary school, where children are taught in separate classes. “There are rivalries, fights. . . . All kinds of terrible things are happening.”

The separation of students is often prompted by complaints from parents of the English-speaking children in bilingual classes, who maintain that their children’s learning is being impeded when the teacher or aide switches back and forth between two languages.

It usually unfolds with little opposition from immigrant parents, who either agree with the change, don’t realize what has happened, or don’t know they have the right to protest it. But it has touched a nerve with some, who worry that being set apart stigmatizes their children, slows their acquisition of English and increases inter-ethnic frictions.

“They grow up with that feeling that they are different, and the English-speaking children feel the others are foreigners that don’t belong to this country,” said Javier Escalante, one of several Latino parents in Inglewood fighting a proposal to end mixed-language classes at one school.

Escalante said both of his children quickly learned English through the program and his son’s best friend is black, which Escalante considers an important connection in a community that is nearly evenly divided between the two groups.

And in Burbank last year, dozens of Latino parents showed up at a school board meeting to protest a decision to separate Spanish-speaking first-, second- and third-graders at one school into classes taught largely in Spanish.

Coincidentally, they came on the same night as a representative of the local human relations board.

The parents “were totally frustrated,” recalled Lila Ramirez, then vice president of the Burbank Human Relations Council. “They told me, ‘They changed this program and we had no notification, no prior warning.’ “

Ramirez later filed a complaint with the state Department of Education alleging that parents had not been adequately consulted before William McKinley Elementary School pulled their children from mixed classes.

The district said the change was intended to better serve the immigrant students by teaching them in their native language, the instruction model favored by the state. But Latino parents accused the school of simply responding to angry white parents and ignoring the concerns of Latino parents.

Segregation of immigrants is nothing new. It dates back as far as the late 1600s, when German immigrants began their own schools in Philadelphia to preserve their language and culture. In the late 1880s, however, a wave of patriotism known as “Americanization” wiped out many of the separate schools favored by immigrants.

Eras of discrimination and desegregation followed, each setting off a pendulum swing in philosophies about immigrant education.

In the 1930s, non-English speakers were first pulled out of regular classrooms for English-as-a-second-language instruction, a practice that later became common. Then, in 1961, Miami schools began offering classes in Spanish for Cuban emigre children, paving the way for other districts to introduce native-language instruction. Twenty years later, a U.S. District Court judge found that Texas had segregated Mexican students in inferior schools, and schools nationwide scrambled to improve integration of bilingual students.

California’s 1976 bilingual education law required that at least one-third of the students in bilingual classes be English speakers. That regulation was relaxed when the law expired eight years ago. Since then, many districts have begun grouping children in language-segregated classes to maximize scarce bilingual teaching resources.

As bilingual education’s future is debated in Sacramento, those who oppose existing approaches have latched onto the resulting segregation as a reason to abandon native-language classes. Bilingual advocates counter that separation may be a necessary evil.

“It creates both an ethnic and a linguistic segregation, which is not good for the limited-English speakers,” acknowledges Sara Fields, a bilingual specialist in Culver City Unified, where classes still are integrated.

“It’s probably reasonable to do it,” Fields said, as long as schools make sure that children are mixed during a large part of the day.

The state requires only that students isolated in bilingual classes be integrated with English-speaking students for a fifth of the school day — about an hour. That can mean as little as watching a video together, or as much as mixing for art, music, physical education or even math lessons.

The only certain antidotes to segregation by language come from both extremes of the instructional spectrum: two-way immersion, favored by bilingual advocates, which aims to teach two languages to classes composed of equal measures of English and non-English speakers; and total immersion, preferred by the anti-bilingual camp, in which all classes are taught in English, and non-fluent students receive in-class assistance in their native language.

If classes were divided by language in San Diego’s Valley Center Union School District, two strikingly different school systems would emerge — one for the children of middle-class white ranchers, and another for the children of poor Latino migrant workers.

So the rural district created a two-way immersion program that mixes about a third of its student body in classes taught in both Spanish and English.

“We really felt that in order for the Latino students to feel good about themselves, we had to put value on Spanish,” said Lucy Haines-Aviles, principal of Valley Center Elementary.

For the first few years, the commingling consists of such exercises as reading poems aloud in unison, first in one language, then another. By third grade, the children are studying books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” — reading it in their native language, in separate groups, but coming together for discussions and projects.

Valley Center’s program is considered a statewide model for districts trying to avoid segregating students, but it is neither perfect nor easy.

Sam Clutter, 13, began the program in second grade and is proud that he can converse in two languages. But Sam said his Spanish-speaking friends don’t spend much time with him now that they are all in middle school.

“They don’t really like to hang out with me anymore,” he said. “They hang out with their Spanish friends.”

Three dozen bilingual teachers have chosen to work in Valley Center specifically because of the two-way program, and they rave about its results. They also volunteer that it is hard to pull off.

“This is very difficult for me because I have to prepare lessons in both languages,” said first-grade immersion teacher Natalie Weston. “As a teacher, sometimes you look at the (segregated) classes and you say, ‘With one language, I could really address their needs.’ “

Formal two-way immersion programs are rare. The more usual pattern is the one that evolved in San Francisco, where English speakers were added to bilingual classes out of necessity, not by design — when there were not enough non-fluent students to fill a classroom.

Most of the English speakers were black children bused to predominantly Chinese or Latino schools to meet court-imposed integration quotas. Some actually learned a second language, though largely through osmosis, because there was no formal second-language instruction for them. And some foundered.

When Rojas, responding to concerns of parents and teachers, looked at last year’s standardized test results, what he found was shocking.

Black students in bilingual classes were scoring at the 27th percentile in reading and 22nd percentile in math on the state’s Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills — scores at least 12 percentage points lower than the still-dismal showing of the district’s other black students.

“When you have a few English-only children in a class of 30, you really don’t get to pay attention to the needs of those children,” said Ligaya Avenida, San Francisco’s bilingual program director. “The tendency is to take care of the bigger need.”

Now Avenida is grappling with how to implement Rojas’ order for separate classes, yet preserve integration goals. She has asked principals to develop plans for blending English-speaking and bilingual program students for up to half the school day, but such mixing requires careful planning and creativity to be more than ceremonial.

Furthermore, many educators caution that academic integration — in which bilingual program students have a chance to learn alongside their English-speaking peers — is the only way to ensure that standards are not lowered for immigrant children.

In the most recent legal challenge dealing specifically with the education of limited-English students, a poverty law firm filed suit against the Seattle Unified School District, alleging that middle and high school students were stuck in a dead-end track, relegated to remedial-level academic classes taught in simpler English, supplemented with electives such as wood shop and piano.

“A lot of them dropped out . . . but some did graduate,” said Deborah Perluss, attorney with Evergreen Legal Services. “But it was not clear . . . that they were graduating with any academic skill level that would allow them to function in the marketplace.”

Oakes, the UCLA education professor, advocates separating limited-English students for language instruction only, then relying on team teaching between mainstream and bilingual instructors in mixed classes for most of the day.

Those partnerships raise expectations for the immigrant students, while lessening the chance that they will be automatically labeled low achievers. “That way, it’s a matter of teaming teachers rather than separating kids,” she said.

“Mixing kids in P.E. so they become friendly across racial groups just doesn’t touch the stereotyped expectations.”

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