Ayano Morozumi doesn’t know it, but she and nearly 1.4 million students like her across the state are on a battlefield, where lines have been drawn over how they are taught.
At issue is a two-hour class she and other students attend three times a week at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, where they learn English with students who speak Spanish and Thai.
The class is called English as a Second Language (ESL) and, in June, Californians will vote on whether to end it, along with the state’s other bilingual education programs.
If Proposition 227 passes — and polls show the state’s voters leaning that way — classes like Ayano’s would be replaced by a far more limited English-language program, called “sheltered English immersion.”
Non-English-speaking students would no longer be taught in their native languages or attend ESL classes for years, as Ayano and her friends have done. They would be taught mainly in English for a year, then moved into regular classes.
The idea is to speed students’ conversion to English and to change a bilingual education system that even its supporters admit is flawed.
But the English for the Children Initiative would have other consequences, too:
With communities that diverse, bilingual instruction in the county’s 43 school districts is given in a variety of ways, from students being pulled out of class an hour each day to learn English, to students taking most of their courses in their native languages. The goal in all cases is for students to master English while learning their core subjects.
San Diego Unified, by far the largest district in the county, provides dozens of bilingual programs. Spanish-speaking students learn in Spanish and attend ESL classes. English-speaking students learn Spanish and French at its Language Academy. Asian students learn social studies and math in a variety of Asian languages.
The district also relies heavily on aides who speak such languages as Afanoromo, Farsi, Ibo, Romanian, Somalian and Urdu to serve as translators for the students. However, the largest group of non-English-speaking students in the district, as well as the state, speaks Spanish.
Other districts, such as the Chula Vista and San Ysidro elementary districts, offer native-language instruction, while the Sweetwater Union High School District teaches students in groups using English-speaking teachers and visual aids.
Supporters of the initiative acknowledge their proposal would trigger radical changes. But they say that is exactly what is needed for an educational program they contend fails non-English-speakers, makes them fall behind their English-speaking peers and limits their career opportunities.
“In almost all countries around the world, children are taught an extra language, but that language is almost always English,” said Ron Unz, author of the initiative.
“It’s strange that in the country where English is spoken, they’re not teaching English,” he said.
Under the initiative, California’s nearly 1.4 million non-English-speaking students would spend one year learning English with a teacher instructing mainly in English, using pictures and gestures to help children learn the language. Afterward, the students would move to all-English classes.
Because students with the same level of English, or non-English, skills would be placed in the same class, a single room could have students ranging from first-graders to fourth-graders.
“Every other country that has a sizable immigrant population uses the same exact sort of method we propose,” Unz said. “If it works everywhere else in the world, why won’t it work with English in the United States?”
The prospect of being placed full time in classes with only English speakers might well shatter the comfort zone that Ayano, 15, and her Japanese friends Shinji Ozawa, 17, and Yoko Kasai, 16, have found at Eastlake High.
Their mouths dropped open and they shot worried glances back and forth when told their ESL class might end and they would no longer have their Japanese interpreter assisting them in their other classes.
“I guess we would learn English faster, but I would not understand in history class,” said Ayano, whose father works at the Canon maquiladora in Tijuana. “My grades would go down and my parents may be angry.”
Well of discontent
Supporters of the initiative say bilingual education has been a 30-year experiment that has failed and has created a bureaucracy that feeds on millions of dollars from the state and federal governments.
Years of legislative efforts to reform bilingual education have been fruitless, leaving the issue ripe for the initiative process, they add.
Even educators who oppose Proposition 227 say there are problems with the way non-English-speaking students are taught in California schools.
For some districts, bilingual education programs are an afterthought.
Districts that succeed, however, attribute that success to requiring the same achievement standards that prevail for students in English-only classes.
There hasn’t been a systematic statewide tracking of students’ progress, leaving an information vacuum about the academic achievements of non-English-speaking students.
Two years ago, frustrated Spanish-speaking parents at the Ninth Avenue School in downtown Los Angeles picketed the school board and kept their 80 children out of school until they were allowed to put their children in English-speaking classes.
It was that incident that prompted Unz, a millionaire Northern California computer software businessman, to put together the initiative.
Unz, who lost the Republican primary for governor in 1994, quickly found the pulse of parents dissatisfied with their children’s slow transition from bilingual classes to those taught only in English.
A program that works
Jamul-Dulzura Superintendent Tom Bishop says he understands the frustration that parents and taxpayers have with unsuccessful bilingual programs. His district’s bilingual program fell into that category.
Years ago, the district had only a couple of dozen non-English-speakers enrolled — it now has 85 — and the Spanish-speaking students were pulled out of their classrooms for an hour each day of instruction in Spanish.
But the district’s data showed that the students immediately began to fall behind in first grade, with the gap widening as the years went on. By the time those students were in the fifth grade, they were two years behind their English-speaking peers, Bishop said.
After months of study, Bishop replaced the program with a dual-language system, where Spanish-speakers learn English and English speakers learn Spanish, meaning that both groups of students should leave sixth grade fluent in both languages.
Begun seven years ago, the program started with kindergartners and has expanded through sixth grade.
“Our data support that two-way language is best,” said Bishop, adding that the program won a prestigious Golden Bell award from the California School Boards Association.
Not only has the two-year gap been erased, all the district’s bilingual students are testing at grade level, Bishop said.
All bilingual students are transitioned into English classes by the fifth grade, at the latest. And even the students learning English are finding academic success, he said. For the past couple of years, the district has had fifth-graders taking both the English and Spanish standardized tests and scoring above their grade levels.
“As a result, I am disturbed about the prospect of an Unz victory, which will force me to abandon a program that’s working,” Bishop said. “I worry about California doing a political solution to an educational problem.”
With nearly 100,000 students limited in English proficiency in the county — the third-largest number in the state behind Los Angeles and Orange counties — schools in San Diego County are proud of the bilingual programs they offer because they are as diverse as the communities they serve.
In San Diego Unified alone, 51 of the district’s 118 schools have bilingual education programs.
On the Bandini campus of Emerson-Bandini Elementary in Southcrest, 7-year-old Renata Cauchon, an English-speaker, participates in a program where only Spanish is spoken.
As in any first-grade classroom, the desks, library, windows and learning stations have labels to help the students read the words.
The only difference: Everything is written in Spanish.
Teacher Claudia Aldrete sits on the floor in the front of the room and pulls out flash cards with such words as “en, la, malo, oso, ama and amo.” (in, the, bad, bear and to love). The students takes turns practicing with Aldrete, and work with each other to enter story summaries in their journals and take vocabulary quizzes with instructional aide Laura Covarrubias.
Renata feels so comfortable with her second language that when she speaks about the “immersion” program, she prefers speaking in Spanish, even when her grammar is still developing.
“Me gusta el programa porque tengo buen amigos,” she said. (I like the program because I have good friends.)
“Quiero quedar en clase porque me gusta aprender espa?ol e ingl?s,” Renata said. (I want to stay in class because I like learning Spanish and English.)
Emerson-Bandini would have the option to keep its bilingual program under the Unz initiative, but it could be a paperwork and classroom planning nightmare, educators say.
Parents would have to sign waivers every year to keep their children in bilingual classes, and then hope that 19 other students in that grade level want to do the same.
Without set numbers of students for each potential bilingual class, school administrators would have difficulty making out class schedules, and they would not know if they needed their bilingual teachers.
“We would sign a waiver,” said Renata’s mother, Lisette. “But it would be an absolute hassle.
“I think it’s real important that children be bilingual and multilingual. I think we’re a little backward and ethnocentric in our culture for not encouraging other languages.”
“I would worry”
Opponents of the initiative say there is no scientific research that shows one year of immersion in English will give non-English-speaking students a good foundation in the language.
That’s what worries Ayano’s Eastlake High School teacher, Maria Ester Lizarraga.
“I would be worried for all these students,” Lizarraga said. “They would have no support.”
Lizarraga creates a classroom atmosphere that is considered nurturing, and students use their new language often. And she provides the push to get them outside their comfort levels.
For example, students recently went across campus asking 10 people 10 questions on goals. There were questions about whether they would go on to college, work while attending school, enter the armed forces, and more.
While it would have been easy for Ayano to work with Shinji and Yoko, each was assigned to a different group. Then all the students came back and presented oral reports.
It wasn’t enough to listen to the presentations, however. Lizarraga randomly called on students to ask one question of those reporting their findings.
Seeing the discomfort in the faces as the students asked questions, one could see they were intimidated. Yet they were learning to think spontaneously in their new language.
Bilingual education advocates say they will fight for native-language instruction because they don’t want non-English-speaking students to fall behind in academics while learning a new language.
“In a sense, this (initiative) will put more limits on children because they won’t understand what they’re learning,” said Maria Martinez, a San Diego Unified parent and vice president of the countywide bilingual advisory committee.
Martinez, a Spanish speaker who agrees bilingualism is important for her children’s futures, has had both of her daughters in bilingual education classes, where they have been successful.
Her older daughter, Cynthia, attends San Diego State University and works as a translator.
“The majority of the public doesn’t understand the concept that bilingual programs teach English,” Martinez said. “They are not giving credit to programs that work.
“The parents who are against the programs maybe got bad instruction,” she said. “With their hands they can change this. We need to think of the children that are going to be the work force of tomorrow.
“Really (the proposition) is not the solution,” Martinez said.