Students flourish under 'English immersion'

Calif.'s bilingual education ban did not have to mean failure

OCEANSIDE, Calif. — When California voted two years ago to abolish bilingual education in public schools, many officials predicted doom for the state’s 1.5 million Spanish-speaking students.

Today, those officials are eating crow — gladly.

New standardized test results show that not only have those students not suffered in English-only classrooms, but their scores increased by more than 50% in some grades since the law passed.

And while a wide gap in test scores still divides students who are new to English and those who are fluent in it, educators admit they are stunned to see how quickly immigrant children adapted.

“Quite frankly, we underestimated the kids,” says Ken Noonan, superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District and founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators. Noonan, who once fought the bilingual ban, now is one of the staunchest supporters of “English immersion.”

Under the state law, all students, including those who don’t speak the language, are taught solely in English. Teachers are permitted to speak another language only if a student has chronic difficulty with school work or is having emotional problems in class.

Noonan says he feared that students, many from Mexico and Central America, would fall so far behind in class because of the language barrier that they would stop coming to school. Instead, they flourished. “We had research that showed it would take kids five to seven years to learn English,” Noonan says. “They learned it in nine months.”

According to state test results released earlier this month, the percentage of limited English students who scored at or above the 50th percentile rose from 25% last year to 32% this year. Over a two-year span, children in the second grade saw their math scores rise from the 27th percentile in 1998 to the 41st percentile this year.

“The kids are like sponges,” says Chiqui Grubic, a first-grade teacher in Oceanside, about 35 miles north of San Diego. “It’s tough on some of them at first,” she says. “The first couple weeks, when they don’t know any English, it can be intimidating. Some of them might cry or want to go home. But it doesn’t take them long to catch on. They’ve surprised all of us.”

Many people are watching the children’s progress. California, which claims one out of every 10 of the nation’s public school students, has become ground zero for the anti-bilingual movement. Arizona will vote in November whether to ban bilingual education, and New York, Colorado and Massachusetts are considering similar measures.

Some critics of the California ban, which was called Proposition 227, aren’t ready to give “English immersion” a passing grade. They credit much of the students’ success to other changes in California’s educational system, including an influx of money, a shift to phonics-based reading and smaller classes.

Still, opponents say they are relieved by the test results.

“It’s too early to say that abolishing bilingual education is the answer,” says Ramon Garzon, a member of the United Latinos Coalition in Los Angeles. “Two years of test results don’t make a trend. But if we’re wrong and the kids are doing well, I’ll be the first one to admit it. The kids are the most important thing, not educational philosophy.”

The state’s anti-bilingual philosophy was born four years ago in Silicon Valley, where software developer Ron Unz read a story about a group of Latino parents who were picketing Los Angeles schools because their children were not learning English. “It seemed absurd that children were not learning English in school,” Unz, 38, says. “So I started looking at test scores.”

Unz says he was stunned to learn that 30 years of federally funded bilingual education — in which students were to be weaned off their native language while learning English — had consistently produced test scores less than half the national norm.

“If a theory doesn’t work for 30 years, you throw it out,” says Unz, who drafted and nearly single-handedly funded Proposition 227 to victory in 1998. His group, English for the Children, is now waging its campaign in Arizona and plans initiatives in other states.

As its success story, the group points to Oceanside, an eclectic city of 150,000. In Oceanside, as in schools throughout California, about 25% of students are classified as limited in English proficiency. Though Noonan says he opposed the bilingual ban, “when it became law I wanted our schools to have the best English immersion program in the state.”

Parents in California can petition schools to continue bilingual education for their children, but they must prove that an English-only education would harm the child psychologically or educationally. Noonan received 120 waiver requests; he granted 12.

The going was rough at first, teachers and parents admit. Some children crawled under their desks, weeping and frustrated. “My son said he wanted to go back to Mexico,” says Rocio Dominguez, whose 7-year-old son, Christian, is about to enter the second grade.

Parents crowded school board meetings to complain. Activists held candlelight vigils outside the schools. But Noonan stayed firm with the English-only program and, after a few months, the complaints turned to cheers.

Veronica Ramos is among the boosters. She enrolled her daughter, also named Veronica, in first grade at Oceanside two years ago, about the same time she began her own adult-education English courses. “She knows more English than I do,” the mother laughs.

Eight-year-old Veronica rolls her eyes. “It’s easy,” she says in fluent English. “I speak English at school and Spanish at home.”

She admits, though, that it’s changed her relationship with her mom, especially when they go over English studies at home. “Sometimes, I help my mom with the words,” she giggles. “That’s weird.”

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