The start of another school year presents extraordinary challenges for San Diego County schools.

For starters, there will be a wholesale shift in the way teachers deal with students who are not fluent in English. Thanks to the passage of Proposition 227, bilingual instruction is being shelved in favor of “sheltered English immersion,” an approach that generally means English only will be spoken in the classroom.

Although there is some doubt as to how much native-language instruction will be permitted, the new state law mandates that students with language difficulties be taught in English. Most teachers will adapt their classroom techniques to hasten the transition of immigrant students so they can communicate more effectively in English.

San Diego Unified began planning for this last spring for approximately 28 percent of its 137,000 students. This was done at the urging of Superintendent Alan Bersin, who was busily working behind the scenes before he officially assumed his duties on July 1.

Bersin, who speaks Spanish fluently, has made clear he intends to close the academic achievement gap that has long bedeviled Hispanic students and contributed to their high drop-out rate. The surest way to close that gap is to see to it that students learn as soon as possible the language they need to succeed in school and the work place.

Other school districts, especially those in the South County, have been doing a first-rate job with students who do not speak English. Although the new state law allows parents some latitude regarding the language in which their children are taught, all schools are committed to the concept of sheltered English immersion.

San Diego schools are no less honed in on improved academic achievement for all students. New state standards and a new testing system will place even greater emphasis on classroom performance.

San Diego County schools routinely score above the state average. But that’s no reason for them to rest on their laurels.

Bersin certainly doesn’t appear to be resting. He has basically scrapped the bureaucratic layer of assistant superintendents, chosen topflight instructional leaders in their place, and hired Anthony Alvarado to oversee a fledgling learning institute.

Lest Bersin be perceived as merely rearranging the deck chairs on a listing ship, consider the mission of the institute, which is to improve the quality of classroom instruction. As the highly successful superintendent of a predominantly poor, Latino and black school district in East Harlem, Alvarado knows something about getting the most from an ethnically diverse student body and staff.

The changing demographics of students throughout the county have made it even tougher for teachers to do their jobs. In 1982, for example, just over 34,000 students had difficulty understanding English. Today, the total exceeds 97,000. Three decades ago, about 17,500 students came from families that received government assistance. Currently, almost 50 percent of all county kids qualify for free or discounted lunches.

These and other problems can be surmounted by conscientious teachers and devoted parents who are committed to a quality education.

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