Under 227, Bilingual Native English Speakers Lose Too

An unintended victim of the dismantling of bilingual education in California is what’s variously known as the dual immersion or two-way system of bilingualism. And don’t take it from me. Take it from Ron Unz , the slayer of bilingualism himself.

In most bilingual programs — the kind that Unz’s Proposition 227 successfully attacked — the stated aim is to prepare students to eventually take classes in English only. Whether that takes one or ten years, the goal remains the same: to eventually "mainstream" immigrant kids into classes taught in English.

But in two-way bilingual programs, the holy grail of mainstreaming does not exist. Instead, native English speakers and immigrant students learning English are placed together (schools strive for a 50-50 split) and taught all subjects in two languages, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through 12th grade. The aim is to produce high school graduates fluent in two languages.

There are very few such programs in the country, since it is expensive to run them. Besides, the notion is so new there hasn’t been time yet for a class to go through the entire 13 years of dual immersion . Yet it is impossible to argue against the obvious benefits of knowing two languages well. Even Ron Unz approves.

"Regarding dual immersion, the impression I have is that the programs are very successful," he told me last January in an e-mail. I asked him whether he believed 227 would force such programs to be shut down, and his response was: "Not at all! So long as there were sufficient parental interest and district support, such schools would be fine under our initiative. In fact, I’d expect our initiative to result in most districts having bilingual magnet schools."

It has not worked out that way. By definition "dual immersion" requires that English plus a second language be consistently used in classrooms. Of course, the use of a foreign language is 227’s big no-no. So as a result, these very same two-way programs that Unz has praised will shut down unless parents and educators get the right approval from the right educational bureaucracies.

It has not come yet. For starters, the California State Board of Education’s refused to grant a general waiver to dual immersion programs — even though the initiative was clearly not aimed at shutting them down .. "(The board) seems to be afraid of thwarting the will of the people, but waivers would seem to me to be the perfect vehicle for implementing a law concerned about academic achievement of English language learners: waivers require parental approval and have required accountability checks in order to continue," says David Carlson, principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary, in Davis, who is fighting to keep the dual immersion program there open.

"If parents choose to enroll their children in a program and the program is successful, it seems to me that the interests of the State and the intent of the initiative have been met."

Carlson has asked for approval to convert Chavez into a charter school, which would exempt it from many of the rules ordinary schools follow. But the board has a limited number of charters it can approve, not enough to cover all the wounded dual immersion programs. So educators must wait for the board to decide whether it wants to increase the number of charters.

Another option is for schools to ask the state Department of Education for permission to become an "Alternative" school, a category normally reserved for schools that focus on troubled adolescents. Ken Ackerman, a parent fighting to keep open the two-way bilingual program at Gates Elementary, in Orange County, says parents and educators there have agreed to live with the designation if it means the dual immersion program stays open. But he says Unz’ group believes Gates Elementary is "circumventing the intentions of 227," and is trying to block the move.

Ackerman says that if by the time classes start in September Gates Elementary has not received approval to operate either as a charter or alternative school, students enrolled in the dual bilingual program will receive instruction in English only until October. At that time, he says , school officials will recourse to the last option: Asking the parents of each student to sign individual waivers exempting their child from 227’s requirements.

It’s bureaucratic nightmare. A needless one, at that.

Roger Hernandez is a nationally syndicated columnist and Writer-in- Residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He can be reached via email at [email protected]

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