During a break from Anita Bowers’ beginning English-language class for new immigrants at Oakland High School, a Chinese teenager, looking lost, approaches her. Another classmate, also a Chinese immigrant, serves as a translator.
The second youth tells Bowers that the first youth is newly arrived from Guangdong Province. Bowers, who doesn’t speak Cantonese, tries to elicit some simple answers from the young man in English. He stares at her blankly.
A few minutes earlier, as a student teacher took over her class, Bowers, chair of Oakland High’s bilingual education department, pointed out a girl who just arrived from Eritrea and knows only the English alphabet, and another new immigrant from China. These three teens and 28 others, all 15 to 17 years old, all relatively new to the United States, are in a Level One (or beginning) English Language Development class. They, and countless others in the state, would be most affected if voters on June 2 approve Proposition 227, which would eliminate most bilingual education programs in public schools. Statewide polls indicate that 7 of 10 California voters support the initiative.
Most of the public debate over 227, also known as “English for the Children” or “the Unz initiative” (for its chief proponent, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz), has focused on Spanish-language programs. But many Asian immigrant children and even U.S.-born Asian Americans could be hurt if the measure passes and survives expected legal challenges.
About 1.4 million California public school students are classified as limited-English proficient, or LEP. About 80 percent are Spanish-speaking Latinos. According to the California Department of Education, students whose primary language is an Asian one (Vietnamese, Hmong, Cantonese, Filipino, Mandarin, Khmer, etc.) make up 15 percent of the LEPs, or about 210,000 students. Some Asian American bilingual-ed experts put the number closer to 250,000, or approximately 40 percent of all Asian American students in the state’s public schools.
It is perhaps ironic that the contemporary bilingual education movement was triggered in part by a U.S. Supreme Court case brought by San Francisco Chinese American families. In the landmark 1973 Lau vs. Nichols case, the high court said public schools had to offer students who weren’t proficient in English equal educational opportunities, which educators have broadly interpreted to mean bilingual programs.
These days, it’s not clear whether Asian Americans support or oppose bilingual education, or even how much they care. Some polls have shown majorities as high as 70 percent in favor, but bilingual advocates question whether the sampling is large enough to be statistically significant. Among public officials, proponents include Garden Grove Councilman Ho Chung, and Westminster Councilman Tony Lam, as well as state Treasurer Matt Fong, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.
“The education issue cannot be distorted by ethnic sensibilities or political opportunism,” said Chung, a Korean American. “Children are our future. We have to educate them. We have to have one common language for everybody to be able to communicate.”
However, Judy Chu, a Democratic candidate for the state Assembly from the Monterey Park-San Gabriel area east of Los Angeles, says the Unz initiative would hurt kids.
“The massive dismantling of bilingual programs under Unz would do a great disservice to limited-English proficient students in our area,” said Chu, adding she isn’t concerned that her stance could hurt her at the polls. “This is a very diverse area. Lots of people come from other countries.”
Jean Quan, a member of the Oakland School Board, worries about losing Asian-language-speaking classroom aides who translate between teachers on one end and students and their parents on the other. If they are cut from school budgets, there will be no one to translate for the parents, she said.
Leland Yee, a San Francisco supervisor and former San Francisco School Board member, said he opposes 227, but criticizes the political and educational establishment for doing a “terrible job” on behalf of limited-English-speaking children.
“The Unz Initiative says we can’t have non-English primary language instruction. I can’t accept that. But I can’t accept business as usual” because policymakers have not exercised sufficient political will to hire enough qualified bilingual teachers and provide enough primary-language textbooks, Yee said.
“If I were the parent of a limited-English proficient student, I would think twice about putting my kid into a bilingual class,” he added.
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If Proposition 227 becomes law, limited-English proficient students would be placed in English immersion classes, possibly with kids of other ages, for up to one year. After that, students are to be placed in classrooms where English is the only language of instruction. Exceptions could be made if enough parents show up in person to request that their children be enrolled in bilingual classes.
Advocates of bilingual education say that core subjects would not be taught during the immersion period and that one year is not enough time for most students to learn the language well enough to grasp core subjects taught in English. Some educators fear that some students will drop out.
“We know from the research that [non-English speaking students] can’t learn English well enough in one year to be put into an academic setting to understand subject matter content taught in English,” said Gay Wong, an associate professor at California State University at Los Angeles who specializes in literacy and biliteracy. Wong said it takes three to four years to learn “social” English, and five to seven years to learn the more abstract “academic” English.
Experts say many factors determine a student’s speed in acquiring English: academic background in the student’s native culture, socioeconomic status of the family, age of arrival. Stanford education professor Kenji Hakuta, speaking at a forum last month in San Francisco, said it is a myth that young children magically learn English quickly.
“If we take into account socioeconomic status, transitional bilingual programs are more effective than English-only programs” when it comes to reading and math, he said. About half of Asian LEP students are poor; among all limited-English proficient youngsters, 80 percent are under the poverty line, he said.
A child’s native language also affects how long it takes to learn English, he said. Cambodian immigrant students, for instance, have more difficulties, in part because of economic status, in part because of a lack of certified Cambodian-language bilingual instructors. Hmong immigrant children can have a harder time learning English because many come from a non-literate culture.
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Some observers believe there is a middle ground between the Unz initiative and the status quo–such as local control. The State Board of Education seems to agree–in March, it decided to turn control over bilingual education decisions to California’s roughly 1,000 school districts.
However, Henry Der, deputy superintendent for public instruction, has warned that the board’s decision does not include accountability, and a bill by state Sen. Dede Alpert, D–San Diego, would require districts to assess how their limited-English students were doing. The legislation awaits Gov. Pete Wilson’s signature.
Wong said giving local districts control over bilingual program decisions “is the lesser of two evils” compared with the Unz Initiative. But she points out that it was local districts’ neglect of limited-English speakers 25 years ago that prompted lawmakers to set up bilingual-ed requirements in the first place.
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Contrary to the impression left by the Proposition 227 campaign, bilingual education programs at most schools with heavy immigrant populations use several approaches, not just one that uses the primary language for all instruction. They depend on students’ needs, and on the availability of materials and qualified teachers and aides. Sometimes, an instructor teaches core subjects like math and social studies using both English and the other language. In “dual immersion,” native-English speakers mix with students who speak another language; both learn the other’s native tongue. Some models call for an English-speaking teacher and a foreign-language aide, or for instructors specially trained in teaching English as a second language.
In Anita Bowers’ two beginning English-Language Development classes, students from China, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, Bosnia, Yemen and Eritrea hear only English as the language of instruction. Bowers mixes most students, so they must talk with one another in English. The newest students, when possible, are paired with someone who speaks his or her primary language.
In a Level Two English language class, teacher Paula Li engages in a lively discussion in English with 27 LEP students, mostly of Latinos and Asian descent. They answer in accented, but understandable English–they aren’t nearly as shy as Bowers’ Level One students. Most of them were, however, in Bowers’ class only last year.
In a Level Five (or advanced) English-language class, teacher James Cham’s students are reading an English-language textbook. One-fifth of Cham’s students were born in the United States. Those students, mostly of Chinese or Mexican descent, were judged to need special help with English-language skills.
And in yet another classroom, Allen Tam teaches Cantonese to native English speakers and Asian immigrants. He is explaining, mostly in Cantonese, differences in how sentences are constructed in Chinese and English.
Students in bilingual programs seem grateful for learning English. Jia Yan Huang, 17, who came to Oakland five months ago from Taishan City in Guangdong Province, said he was “happy” to be learning English in Bowers’ class.
A Thai-born teenager in Li’s class, comparing his classrooms to an all-white school he saw in a movie, said he preferred the ethnic diversity at Oakland High. “I like this [school] better. I can learn another language, like all the bad words,” he said, as his classmates broke out in laughter.
Ratana Mey, a 16-year-old daughter of Cambodian refugees, was born in Oklahoma, where her parents had settled. At first, she learned the Khmer language of her family; she learned English in East Bay elementary, middle and high schools. Her mixed-ethnicity classes were taught in English.
“It is important to learn two languages,” Ratana said. “One is my native language [Khmer]–to communicate with my culture. But you need English to communicate with other cultures.”
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Oakland High’s varied programs are typical of California school districts with significant numbers of Asian immigrants. In fact, says Cal State professor Wong, few Asian limited-English speakers are in “true” bilingual programs, ones in which at least two-thirds of the students speak the same primary language and are taught by a certified primary-language teacher who uses English, too. “We know that a majority of Asian American LEPs, as high as 80 percent, are in immersion classrooms where English is the language of instruction,” Wong said.
Outside Oakland High as well, Asian American bilingual teachers paint a diverse picture of what life is like. Helen Joe-Lew, a resource teacher for the San Francisco public schools’ bilingual programs, said in her 25 years of teaching, English and Cantonese have been used in tandem as languages of instruction.
Priscilla Der, a second grade teacher at San Francisco’s Francis Scott Key Elementary School, said her school uses various bilingual models. She and other American-born teachers use more English, with Cantonese as a “support” language. Other teachers use more Cantonese than she does. “You use whatever language you are comfortable with,” she said. “In all my years  in bilingual education, there’s never been a model that satisfies everyone,” she said.
The Filipino Education Center in San Francisco serves Filipino newcomers from kindergarten through fifth grade. Leni Juarez, its principal and a former teacher, said most students know little English because they come from rural areas or were poor city dwellers in the Philippines. As a result, teachers use a great deal of primary language while also using English, Juarez said.
Bilingual education can clash with some parent expectations. George A. Louie, who despite a Chinese-sounding name is African American, is suing the Oakland school district because his 5-year-old son, Travell, who speaks only Enhlish, was placed in a Lincoln Elementary School kindergarten where Cantonese is a language of instruction along with English. Louie is demanding his son be placed in an English-only classroom, and he is being represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has challenged other bilingual programs.
Not all teachers support bilingual education. Jaime Escalante, the famous Los Angeles high school math teacher whose story became a movie, is honorary chairman of the Proposition 227 campaign. He has worked to eliminate his school’s bilingual programs, which he felt were holding students back. “It seems a real tragedy that in many cases our public schools are not teaching English to 5- or 6-year-old immigrant children, who are at an age when they can so easily learn the language,” he said.
Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Santa Ana kindergarten teacher, co-authored the Unz Initiative. “Bilingual education deserves an ‘F’ for failure to teach English,” she said in a January 1998 Teacher magazine article. “The earlier a child learns a new language, the better,” said Tuchman, who uses immersion English to teach her mostly Spanish-speaking students.
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Unz himself acknowledges that he perceives differences between Asian bilingual programs and the more prevalent Spanish bilingual programs, and that he’s mostly targeting the latter. He said Asian Americans he has talked to are surprised when they are told Spanish bilingual programs have, according to him, only 30 minutes of English-language instruction a day. If Asian-language bilingual programs are taught primarily in English, Unz stressed, they would remain legal under his initiative.
Although Unz’s attack focuses on Spanish-language programs, Henry Der sees an unfortunate fallout. “Asian bilingual programs are getting less attention now because he has chosen to attack Spanish-language programs. This does a great disservice to Asian American LEPs.”
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Have bilingual programs worked for Asian Americans? Experts say there haven’t been enough studies done. On May 1, San Francisco school officials issued a study showing that bilingual students who completed the district’s program did as well, if not better, in reading and math scores, grade-point average and attendance as students not in the program. Unz criticized the study for looking only at students who had completed the program and not at those who hadn’t.
Absent broad, conclusive studies, Tammy Leung’s experience, like that of many others, sheds insight. Leung immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in 1978, when she was 15. She could read and write English, but couldn’t speak it or understand it. She took bilingual classes at Oakland High, including core subjects taught in Cantonese and English.
“It worked for me,” she said in barely accented English. “It gave me confidence when I did well in classes. It gave me a feeling I could do well in the United States.”
Eventually, she got her bachelor’s degree in nursing at San Jose State University and is now a registered nurse.
When asked how she thinks she would have done had she been placed in an English-only immersion program, she said, “I would have dropped out of school.”