Bilingual-education waiver pays off with better grades

Other California school districts eye English immersion

LOS ANGELES – Students in the first California school district to win a waiver of long-standing state bilingual-education requirements significantly improved both their academic performance and English-language skills during the first 18 months they were placed in English-immersion classrooms.


The results from the 9,544-student Westminster School District in suburban Orange County will be presented to the California Board of Education in December, when the district tries to make permanent a temporary waiver it won in late 1995.


They also are expected to be used by a growing movement of California school districts that want to dispense with bilingual classes – months before a proposed ballot initiative to ban them in all public schools is due to qualify for June’s primary-election ballot.


So far, three other school districts totaling more than 40,000 students have won temporary waivers of state requirements that students who speak little or no English be schooled in their native languages while gradually learning English.


Dozens of other districts have sent staffers to the four areas, all located in conservative Orange County. At least 10 applications for similar waivers are expected to be filed in the next three months.


The Westminster students on average placed in the 60th percentile on the California Achievement Test IV, up from the 56th percentile under the former bilingual program. In English-language comprehension, scores among former bilingual students rose from an average of 34 to 39 on the test’s 99-point scale.


The rate of progress toward English proficiency also improved dramatically. Under bilingualism, just 4 percent of English-deficient students advanced each year to the point of not requiring any help in their native language. But that rate has climbed to 10 percent yearly under English immersion, with native Vietnamese and Spanish speakers improving at an equal clip.


Supporters of bilingual classes maintain those numbers may be illusory.


“They haven’t yet compared immigrant students with their English-speaking peers in all subjects,” said Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education. “Bilingual instruction is more effective because students are taught all academic subjects in their native languages.”


Westminster, home of the so-called “Little Saigon” concentration of Vietnamese immigrants, led the waiver movement because of a “Catch-22″ situation: The district, with 23 percent of its students English-deficient native speakers of Vietnamese, was required to hire 57 certified teachers bilingual in English and Vietnamese. But in mid-1995, the entire state had only 44 such teachers.


Westminster, which enrolls almost an equal number of English-deficient Spanish speakers, also had difficulty finding enough certified Spanish-speaking teachers.


“It was impossible for us to comply. So we had to do something different. We sought a waiver that would allow us to teach in English with uncertified Vietnamese- and Spanish-speaking aides present to help in the classrooms,” said Tracy Painter, director of special projects for the district.


Westminster won permission to try a program in which teachers speak only English and students are required to answer them in English, even if their English is poor. The aides translate lessons for children who need help.


Miss Painter believes supporters of the anti-bilingualism initiative will make heavy use of the Westminster results. “They will also be significant as other districts follow up on our programs both before and after the vote on that measure,” she said.


Officials of the other three districts that won temporary waivers this fall are hoping for similar results.


“We think we can make the same sort of progress,” said Emily Suarez, director of bilingual education for the 29,516-student Orange Unified School District in the city of Orange, Calif.


“The great majority of our English-deficient students are Spanish speakers, and we’ve never been able to find enough certified bilingual teachers for them. With the waiver we’ve now got, we think we’ll be able to get about 10 percent a year to move out of the English-deficient category,” she said.


Meanwhile, the initiative’s backers already are trying to make hay with what the individual school districts are doing.


“We’re using their results to show Latinos and Asians that there are other methods of education that work better for them than bilingualism,” said Sheri Annis, press secretary for the initiative sponsors. “We’re showing them that parents in those districts are getting better results for their children without having to fight for it.”


The new wave of resistance to bilingualism is fueled both by the planned initiative, whose backers report they already have gathered well over the required 433,000 voter signatures needed to qualify their measure for a vote, and by a shortage of certified bilingual teachers.


A Los Angeles Times poll conducted early last month indicated the initiative is almost certain to pass, with more than 80 percent backing among all voters and 84 percent among Hispanics.


The initiative’s sponsors are funded primarily by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz. Mr. Unz, who won more than 30 percent of the vote in a 1994 primary-election challenge to California’s Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, maintains that immigrant children today learn “little or no English” because of bilingual classes.


His belief is supported by state statistics showing fewer than 3 percent of the 1.3 million children in California’s bilingual classes progressed to English-only instruction during the last school year.


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