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Prop 227 almost ended bilingual education, but not quite

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Posted: Friday, January 3, 2003 10:00 pm

Fairsite Elementary School teacher Esmeralda Sanchez spends at least an hour daily instructing her students in Spanish.

The third-grade Galt students have read books, written stories and talked about two literature genres - fantasia and realismo.

Her bilingual class is geared to help students transition to English through reading and writing in their native tongue.

Sanchez said most of her students are meeting state-prescribed benchmarks for English-learning students.

"Some students didn't have to be taught to read in English because they already knew how to read in Spanish," she said.

"We're really seeing some results."

The transitional class is in the minority of classrooms at Lodi and Galt-area schools.

Four years ago, Proposition 227 virtually ended bilingual education in California public schools and replaced it with English immersion programs.

The state initiative required students be taught predominately in English unless parents signed waivers requesting bilingual education.

A group of disgruntled parents at Lawrence Elementary School in the Lodi Unified School District last month has sparked community interest in the subject.

The parents were calling for more bilingual instructional assistants and Spanish-speaking teachers, measures not precluded by the state law.

Critics argue school districts clinging to bilingual education have not kept pace with districts which have eliminated such programs in improving standardized test scores.

Ron Unz, who co-authored Proposition 227 and is the leader of English for the Children, said other states have passed similar laws, indicating the failure of bilingual education.

"There's lots of evidence that bilingual education doesn't work," he said, adding that significant gains have been made by schools with English immersion programs on the state standardized test in the last four years.

"Those which kept bilingual programs had relatively little improvements," he said.

So what's the state of bilingual education locally?

In Lodi Unified, most English-learning students are in immersion classes where they study reading, math and other subjects in English.

The district has more than 8,000 students learning English as a second language, representing 29 percent of the district's population. Spanish, Hmong, Urdu, Cambodian and Vietnamese are the top five languages spoken other than English.

Lodi Unified's figures are slightly higher than the state average of 25 percent, or 1.6 million students, said Christine Malandro, Lodi Unified's multilingual coordinator.

Despite having more than a quarter of the district's students speaking other languages, only 120 students are enrolled in bilingual classes, Malandro said.

Many students whose parents requested bilingual education come from farm-labor families who live at the Harney Lane Migrant Camp.

The migrant students attend classes on a special schedule designed around when the camp is open between March and November.

District officials try to honor parent requests for bilingual education, Malandro said.

Under the law, the district is required to offer bilingual classes if 20 or more students at a grade level have signed waivers at a campus.

Other English-learning students may get small-group instruction or help from bilingual instructional assistants in the classroom.

Despite the bilingual instruction, the students still spend much of their day learning in English, and they study the same materials as other students, Malandro said.

Bilingual programs offer support in the students' primary language and literacy in both languages, she said.

The majority of Lodi Unified's English-learning students are in so-called Sheltered English Immersion classes or mainstream classrooms receiving specialized help to develop their language skills.

The students continue receiving the support until they're tested and considered fluent in English, which can take up to five years, Malandro said.

In the Galt Elementary School District, which has almost 1,000 English learners or 23 percent of the district's population, the picture is similar.

About 96 percent of the district's English-learning students are Hispanic and speak Spanish.

The district has four elementary schools - two which have only immersion classes and two which offer bilingual classes.

Karen Schauer, Galt's curriculum director, said district officials have seen strong improvements by both programs.

"At every school, there's an improvement trend. We're not seeing anything pointing to one program that is better than the other," she said.

The district continues to offer bilingual programs because parents request the dual instruction, Schauer said.

Galt officials are studying how to measure whether the programs are effective, but tracking students is challenging given student mobility in the district.

"Our district goal is to eliminate the achievement gap between English-only and English-learning students," Schauer said.

Both Lodi and Galt districts have made gains in academic achievement for all students, though English learners continue to trail behind native speakers.

Proposition 227 changed some practices for Lodi Unified, which offered few bilingual classes prior to the state law, she said.

"What it did was establish a process where parents had to request primary language classes," Malandro said.

The state law also generated more attention and scrutiny of programs for English-learning students offered by school districts, she said.

Malandro, who supports using primary language as a tool to help students learn, debunks Unz' appraisal of the law he helped pass.

"If anything, it's helped draw attention to creating better programs for English learning students," she said.

Instead, Malandro credits the push for academic standards and accountability in reforming California's public education not just for non-native speakers, but for all children, she said.

Until last year, the state didn't even have a standardized test used for measuring language development for English-learning students, Malandro said.

Both Lodi and Galt school districts have slowly begun moving students up the proficiency levels on the state test, called the California English Language Development Test.

The state education department lagged on getting test results back to school districts last year, which held up redesignating some students, Malandro said.

But she expects more students will be redesignated this year through the CELDT, which has five stages, starting at the basic level of beginning to an advanced level in English development.

"We still have a ways to go," she said.

At Heritage Elementary School in Lodi's Eastside, Principal Maria Cervantes leads a campus with the district's highest population of English learning students - 65 percent of the school's enrollment.

Heritage educators work hard to teach in many modes in the immersion classes, reaching out to students through visual, oral and hands-on work, Cervantes said.

"They're challenged to present the information in so many different ways to make it understandable for the students," she said.

Some English-learning students receive support through bilingual teachers and instructional assistants, Cervantes said.

School officials encourage parents to continue developing their native tongue at home. "It's important to have both the primary and second language. We don't want our students to lose communication with their parents," she said.

Cervantes said bilingual education became so controversial in the last decade because various programs in the state were turning out mixed results.

"It's essential to have a well-trained staff and well-articulated program," she said. "If you don't have both, it's not going to work."

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