The character of American life 50 years hence will be determined not only by decisions in the White House or speeches on the campaign trail but by what happens in elementary school classrooms where immigrants’ children are learning?or not learning? English. So leave the campaign behind and visit Suni Fernandez’s second graders in Laurel Elementary School in Oceanside, Calif., a modest- income town just south of Camp Pendleton and 35 miles north of San Diego. Sixteen of the 18 pupils there have parents who are immigrants from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America; two arrived from rural Mexico during the school year; in most of their homes the only language spoken is Spanish. But these second graders are reading and writing in English.
It was not always so: Two years ago most of the instruction would have been in Spanish. As one boy reads from an unfamiliar text with the fluency and comprehension one would expect in an upscale suburb, Fernandez says he could not have done as well until sixth grade under the old system. At the end of the school year, 13 of her 18 kids are rated as fluent by the state LAS test. “Up to two years ago,” she says, “only one student would have been rated as fluent.” Many families hand down stories of how immigrant grandparents learned English in school and then moved on to success. The same thing is happening today in schools like Oceanside’s.
But for many years, Latino kids failed to learn enough English to score well on tests and qualify for good jobs, thanks to “bilingual education,” which in most cases was neither bilingual nor education. Latino politicians and foundation- funded activist groups gave loud public support to it while often admitting privately that it wasn’t working. Education schools spun theories of how kids would learn English better by learning in Spanish, and teachers’ unions pocketed dues from “bilingual” teachers who got $5,000 bonuses. Democrats reflexively voted for it, and Republicans paid it no heed: It wasn’t their kids.
Test scores up. Then Palo Alto entrepreneur Ron Unz sponsored Proposition 227, which limited Spanish-language instruction to one year in most cases. It passed by a wide margin in June 1998. Oceanside Unified School Superintendent Ken Noonan, who is of Mexican descent and was once a bilingual teacher, opposed 227. But when it passed, “we decided to implement the law as written,” despite a protest march and candlelight vigil. Oceanside went from more than 150 to zero bilingual classes and also moved to phonics and basic math. Many teachers were very skeptical. “The first one or two months are the hardest,” Noonan says. But then “immersion seemed to work. When parents saw the progress the kids were making, they were overjoyed.” Test scores show Oceanside’s immersion is working: The May 1999 state-required Stanford 9 test showed scores for the early grades?those most affected by the switch from bilingual?rose from the 35th percentile to the 45th in just one year. The San Jose Mercury News found similar sharp rises in test scores for Latino children in immersion all over California.
Not all the news is good. At least 12 percent of California Latinos are still in bilingual instruction, and the Los Angeles Unified district, the nation’s second largest, has tens of thousands in its “Model B” program, which, a grand jury ruled last year, does not comply with 227. And Alice Cal-lahan, a longtime activist who runs Las Familias Del Pueblo community center in L.A.’s garment district, says that older students who went through bilingual programs lack the language facility needed for standardized tests. “Kids go to high school and get A’s and B’s and get visions of college in their heads. Then they get a 350 on the verbal SAT, and for the first time they learn they aren’t on the playing field,” she says.
Callahan criticizes “professionals who say these kids can’t learn” and praises Gov. Gray Davis, who opposed 227 but has insisted that the law be carried out and has vetoed bills passed by the Democratic legislature to undermine it. He has called for extending 227’s adult English-learning classes from $50 million to $400 million, with an 8-to-12-week immersion program modeled on one in Israel. The glaring contrast between California’s high-tech success and its near-bottom-level student test scores jarred Davis when he learned in 1995 that most Cal State University students needed remedial reading or math. “My No. 1 concern is improving student achievement, and I will not run again if test scores don’t go up,” he says. He appointed to the state school board Nancy Ichinaga, a 26-year elementary school principal, who never allowed bilingual programs and whose tightly structured immersion and phonics programs have produced near-top test scores in modest- income, heavily black and Latino Inglewood. Ichinaga, Davis, Noonan, Fernandez, Callahan, Unz, for different reasons, all believe that, as Davis puts it, “every kid can learn, can do better.” After a lost generation, Latino kids in California are finally learning, in plain English, like immigrant children did a century ago. Will other states follow?