Booting Bilingual Education

Immigrant parents support California's English-immersion push

Los Angeles – Months before a proposed ballot initiative to ban virtually all bilingual-education programs in public schools is due to qualify for June’s California ballot, school districts already are lining up for permission to dump bilingualism in favor of English-immersion plans.

Four school districts, whose enrollments total more than 40,000 students, have won temporary waivers of longstanding state requirements that pupils who speak little or no English be schooled in their native languages while gradually learning English.

Dozens of other districts have sent staffers to observe the four districts, all in conservative Orange County, and at least 10 applications from across the state for similar bilingualism waivers are due to be filed with the state Department of Education in the next three months.

Resistance to bilingual education is fueled by the planned initiative, whose backers report they have gathered many more than the 433,000 valid voter signatures needed to qualify their measure for a vote. The measure would ban bilingual education unless parents in a district petitioned for it in large numbers. The resistance also is a product of a longstanding shortage of certified bilingual teachers. A Los Angeles Times poll conducted last month indicated the initiative is almost certain to pass, with more than 80 percent backing among voters, including 84 percent among Latinos. In an advisory vote conducted by the Orange Unified School District on Nov. 4, 86 percent of voters declared that they approved the move.

“The moves by school districts can’t help but give our drive even more momentum,” said Sheri Annis, press secretary for the initiative sponsors, who are funded primarily by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz. Unz, who won more than 30 percent of the vote in a 1994 primary election challenge to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, maintains that immigrant children today learn “little or no English” because of bilingual classes. The state mandate began to be implemented in the early 1970s.

He is supported by state statistics showing that less than 3 percent of the 1.4 million children in California’s bilingual classes progressed to English-only instruction during the past school year.

The leader in jumping the gun on the initiative has been Orange County’s 9,544-student Westminster School District. Home of a concentration of Vietnamese immigrants, the district has had a temporary waiver of bilingual classes since 1995 and will apply in December to make that waiver permanent.

“We were first moved by the shortage of certified bilingual teachers in Vietnamese,” said Tracy Painter, director of special projects for the district. Painter said 46 percent of Westminster’s students, through eighth grade, lack English language skills. The non-English speakers are divided evenly between children of immigrants from Vietnam and Latin America.

“The biggest problem was they were requiring us to hire 57 certified Vietnamese-speaking teachers, but at the time there were only 44 in the entire state,” Painter said. “Obviously, it was impossible for us to comply.”

Her district won a temporary waiver of bilingualism, proposing instead a program in which teachers speak only English and students are required to answer in English, even if their English is poor. Uncertified aides in every classroom translate lessons for children who need help.

After 18 months of instruction only in English, Painter reported that Westminster’s English-deficient pupils have made better academic progress and learned more English than they did when taught in their native languages. The district’s students on average placed in the 56th percentile on the standardized nationally administered California Achievement Test IV tests under the former bilingual program, but that performance rose to the 60th percentile under the English-immersion plan.

English-language comprehension among students in former bilingual classes rose from 34 under bilingual education to 39 on the test’s scale of 1 to 99. Progress of English proficiency also rose. While under bilingualism, just 4 percent of English-deficient students progressed each year to the point of not requiring instruction in their native languages. The rate has been 10 percent yearly under English immersion. The district reports this improvement among both its Vietnamese- and Spanish-speaking students.

“We think the Unz initiative will certainly want to use these figures,” Painter said. “They will also be significant as other districts follow up on our programs both before and after the vote on that measure.”

“I like this,” said Tranh Nguyen, father of third-grader Prun Nguyen. “My daughter has learned more English in the last year than in her two other years of school, and she must speak English to get good jobs.”

But Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education, said the Westminster results are meaningless because the district has yet to compare non-native students with their English-speaking peers in all subjects. She said bilingual instruction is “more effective because students are taught all academic subjects in their native languages, then moved gradually into English.”

The initiative backers are already making hay with what the 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,” Annis said. “We’re showing them that parents in those districts are getting better results for their children without having to fight for it.”

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