Bilingual Education a Necessity for Oakland

Bilingual education is not just a matter of politics; it is Oakland’s reality.

As one of the most diverse cities in the nation, Oakland schools reflect that diversity. Almost 18,000 — or one-third — of our 53,000 students are designated Limited English Proficient. Students speak more than 57 languages other than English at home.

A fundamental principle of education is that students learn best if their teachers build on what students already know. Bilingual education is a proven tool for teaching children English while they continue to learn the math, science, history and other academic content they need to know.

Furthermore, the district has a legal responsibility — both under federal Title 6 and a compliance order from the Office for Civil Rights — to provide bilingual education. That responsibility is made much more challenging because of the number of languages spoken and the needs of students in the district as a whole.

Unfortunately, some of the media and conservative think tank portrayals leave the impression that bilingual education programs don’t teach students English. Let me state most emphatically that all students in Oakland public schools are expected to become proficient in listening, speaking, reading and writing in English.

Bilingual education is not teaching in a language other than English all day. Rather, it is a teaching strategy that uses the language the child is familiar with as a bridge to learning the English vocabulary and grammar that is critical to being successful in the classroom.

In Oakland, all LEP students have daily instruction in English Language Development, where English is taught in a structured way to help students develop their vocabulary, understand grammar and the structures of the English language, and to learn the sounds, accents, tone and pronunciation of words in English.

Experience in Oakland and across the nation has shown that it takes several years for students to develop that English oral and written proficiency. Yes, students may be able to learn survival conversational English in a year’s time, but it takes longer to achieve the academic understanding of vocabulary and grammar to successfully learn math, science, social studies and other curriculum content in English.

On the other hand, it would be unconscionable to wait for students to become proficient in English before we teach them the rest of the curriculum. We must build on what students already know.

The district strongly believes there is not only a place but a tremendous need for bilingual education in Oakland. But one size does not fit all. In certain bilingual classes, instruction is largely in English, while in others, it is mostly in the language of the students — it depends on the needs and English proficiency level of the children involved.

Neighborhood schools reflect the demographic and cultural makeup of their neighborhoods. Individual school sites should be able to tailor their school’s program to meet the needs of their students. With all the work we have done to encourage site-based management and improve student achievement, it would be inconsistent to move away from this direction.

And yet, that is just what the “Unz Initiative,” or “English Only Initiative” would do if it passes on June 2. Furthermore, we take exception to the seemingly concerted effort to attack the bilingual program in order to drive a wedge among African-American, Hispanic and Asian communities using the issue of bilingual dollars.

The Board of Education recently passed a resolution opposing the Unz Initiative and has asked the City Council to consider doing the same. After all, Oakland has a solid tradition of many cultures working together for the good of our city and our children. Clearly, this issue is not just a school issue, it is an Oakland issue.

We encourage Oakland residents to learn more about bilingual education in our schools. A televised Town Hall meeting on bilingual education is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 14, on KDOL, channel 13.

Carole C. Quan is superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District.

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