WESTMINSTER, Calif. — Each day, just before classes begin, the yard outside Finley Elementary School fills with laughter and chatter in three languages. A mother gives last-minute instructions to her son in Vietnamese. A group of Mexican boys catches up on the gossip in Spanish.
Three signs outside the entrance — in English, Spanish and Vietnamese — tell parents to check in at the office when they visit. Every notice that gets sent home is in three languages, too.
At this Orange County public school, the vast majority of students are immigrants — and 60 percent of the nearly 600 enrolled have only limited English skills.
And the growing proportion of such students in California is fueling a statewide debate over how best to educate them.
Steadily gaining momentum is a movement to scrap the traditional teaching method of bilingual education — in which students are taught first in their first language, while simultaneously getting training in English.
There will almost surely be an initiative calling for such a change on the state ballot in June. And any decision made here is likely to have national implications. This state, after all, is home to nearly half of the nation’s 3.2 million students classified as limited English proficient, or LEP.
In a preview of the coming battle, voters in one Orange County school district — Orange Unified — voted on Tuesday to support their district’s decision to drop the bilingual approach. The vote, which was merely advisory, was not close — 86 percent in favor, 14 percent against.
A recent Los Angeles Times poll shows similar sentiment statewide — with 80 percent in favor and 18 percent against. Latino support was even higher, reaching 84 percent.
The initiative is the brainchild of Ron Unz, a software multimillionaire from northern California’s Silicon Valley who says that bilingual education is simply a well-intentioned idea that has failed.
His proposal, called “English for the Children,” would put the vast majority of LEP students in English immersion programs, transferring them into mainstream classes in a year. Unz says it’s common sense.
Unz, who ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 1994, says he was inspired by a group of Latino parents who boycotted their children’s elementary school in Los Angeles’ skid row last year because the school refused to put the children in English classes.
“Many of the children in bilingual education programs never learn English properly,” he said recently. “Often, they’re not even introduced to written English until the third or fourth grade. By the time they leave school they have the equivalent of second-grade English. And they’re trapped. Because if you aren’t really literate in English, you can never get a good job.”
His initiative has attracted an unusual coalition of supporters, from anti-immigrant activists to poor immigrant parents, frustrated by their children’s lack of progress.
Many educators strongly disagree with English immersion, arguing that his one-size-fits-all solution would wreak havoc.
“This is going to be very harmful to students. It’s going to leave the most vulnerable students without a chance for education. They’re not going to understand what’s being taught,” said Maria Quezada, a professor of educational administration at California State University, Long Beach, and president of the California Association for Bilingual Education. “Bilingual education isn’t the failure. It’s the system.”
Legally, bilingual education is rooted in a federal law enacted 25 years ago, when Mexican Americans pushed for their children to be taught in Spanish.
Since then, particularly in California, bilingual programs haven’t been able to keep up with the population. The number of limited-English students in the state has nearly doubled in less than a decade. Nearly 80 percent are Hispanic, although the number of Asian students is increasing, too.
But a shortage of teachers means that state schools now have 21,000 fewer bilingual teachers than they need, the Education Department estimates. In the end, only about 30 percent of all LEP students receive any native-language instruction. And many schools have been forced to tape together makeshift programs. The results, naturally, are uneven.
“A lot of these programs are ill-formed, hard to describe, operating with no particular fidelity to bilingual education programs as they were envisioned,” says Roland Tharp, director of the Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.
Well-designed bilingual education programs work, supporters say. But they require patience. A recent study of the Santa Ana school system found that sometimes it takes students as many as seven to 10 years to gain the kind of academic fluency that allows them to keep up in mainstream classes.
“Everyone wants students to learn English, but even while they’re learning English, they have to also be learning arithmetic and history and science. If they don’t get that information in a language they can understand intellectually, there’s no way they can succeed,” said Douglas Mitchell, who runs the California Educational Research Cooperative at the University of California, Riverside.
Critics of bilingual education say students often linger for years in second-rate programs.
“They’re not even managing to teach Mexican children to read or write well in Spanish,” says Alice Callaghan, who runs Las Familias Del Pueblo, the skid-row community center where parents organized their boycott last year.
“The parents I work with are garment workers. They don’t want their children working in sweatshops or cleaning the fancy downtown offices of corporate lawyers. And I think everyone who’s arguing for bilingual education is arguing for a theory, not the practice.”
Callaghan and others point to a state dropout rate of 50 percent for Hispanic students, as well as an annual transfer rate out of bilingual programs of only about 5 percent.
State education officials are aware of the system’s problems. So two years ago, the California Board of Education offered districts a chance to get waivers, allowing them to try other methods of teaching.
The Westminster School District, in which Finley Elementary is located, was the first district to win a provisional permit. Westminster hopes to make the waiver permanent.
At Finley, all students now attend classes taught in English, with bilingual teaching aides in the classrooms part of each day to supplement the teachers’ efforts. As the teachers teach, using lots of visual tools, the aides make sure LEP students are following. They quietly move from student to student, explaining key concepts in the students’ native languages.
In a second-grade classroom at Finley, teacher Dolly Kamei reads a large picture book aloud in English, asking frequent questions of the largely Vietnamese class. Meanwhile, her aide, Lam Nguyen, a former high school teacher in Saigon, sits with Henry Twong, gently going over a work sheet of addition in Vietnamese.
“Sometimes, after Teacher tells a story in English, I tell it again in Vietnamese,” says Nguyen. “I try to help kids understand.”
Advocates of bilingual education say such approaches have promise. They say the Unz initiative would derail them, while forcing all children into an untested English program based on anecdote, not research.
“We have a tendency in California to completely do away with things, rather than trying to fix them and make them work,” says Tharp. “But we’ll lose so much ground if we do that here. The sad thing is that, because of so many other problems, we might do away with bilingual education before it’s ever really been tried.”