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Va. English-Language Program Is a Model for Other Districts

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Under legislation now being developed by the Reagan Administration, school districts nationwide would be permitted to spend federal dollars to teach their non-English-speaking students using instructional methods other than "transitional bilingual education," according to the Administration's budget plan for fiscal 1983.

One legislative proposal, known as the "Services for Limited-English-Proficient Children Act," would replace the Bilingual Education Act of 1968. The bill will be sent to the Congress next month, according to Gary L. Jones, the Education Department's undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation.

In Fairfax County, Va., where Mr. Jones was a school-board member when one such alternative method became a lightning rod for federal opinion--first drawing criticism and the threat of litigation, then accolades--the policy shift is being applauded because it would qualify the 7-year-old program for federal funds.


Falls Church, Va.--When Vanya Pham Vu's third-period high-school students arrived for her class recently, they reported, in response to her questioning, that they had seen a movie about "a boy and his red balloon" in an earlier class.

For Ms. Vu, the discussion of the adventures of the boy and his red balloon was not simply diversionary patter, a way to settle the class down. It was serious work, and she listened intently to the comments of the 17 young people as they attempted to convey "the main idea" of the film.

Hispanic and Asian Students

For the students, whose backgrounds are a mix of Hispanic and Asian nationalities, the talk also was instructive, because it required them to frame their thoughts com-pletely in English, not their native language.

In this particular class, according to Ms. Vu, the students are "very verbal, but unable to write well." Although she does not like her students "to feel they are being corrected," corrections are often necessary because of their limited vocabulary and grammatical errors.

"He [the boy] don't want the balloon to get wet," said one student in response to Ms. Vu's question on the movie.

"He didn't want the balloon to get wet," she said firmly, insisting that he repeat her correction.

Ms. Vu is one of 130 full-time and part-time English-as-a-Second-Language (esl) teachers employed by the Fairfax County school system, which uses only the esl approach to teach some 3,500 non-English-speaking students at 82 schools in the district.

Unlike public-school systems in the West and Southwest that have large concentra-tions of Spanish-speaking students, northern Virginia schools, and others located in and around the Washington metropolitan area, have in recent years experienced a large influx of refugees from Central and South America, the Middle East, Vietnam, and Korea.

And even before the latest wave of immigrants, Fairfax, with its varied community of diplomatic representatives to the U.S., had developed a commitment to the esl technique to cope with classes of children speaking many different native languages.

Ms. Vu's classes at Falls Church High School are typical. In Fairfax's esl program, students are evaluated and assigned to such special English classes for a number of hours during the school day, as well as to regular classes (in art, physical education, and science) where they join the rest of the English-speaking students.

At the Falls Church school, the 180 esl students, out of a total population of 1,600, have varying levels of proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking English. Some of the students, according to Ms. Vu, have never been in school before.

Yet, from their first day they are discouraged from using their native language. Ms. Vu, who taught school in Vietnam until 1975, said she will speak to a student in his native language only after school, and never in the presence of another student.

The esl approach to teaching children with little or no proficiency in English is one of the most common bilingual-education methods used by schools across the country. But while it has long been considered pedagogically sound by many linguists and language teachers, the esl method became embroiled in broader social and political decisions that had the effect of limiting its use in many schools.

After 1968, when Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act first made foreign-speaking children eligible for special educa-tional assistance, legislative and executive actions became increasingly responsive to the demands of the expanding language-minority populations that such funds be earmarked for teaching students in their native languages while they learned English.

Native Language

That direction was further supported when the Supreme Court ruled in 1974, in Lau v. Nichols, that providing "equal educational opportunity" under civil-rights laws might well require teaching students in their native language. After that decision, the government sent to school districts "the Lau remedies," which--although they did not have the force of law--said districts could avoid the threat of litigation if they offered their non-English-speaking students special programs in their native languages.

And under the terms of the amended federal bilingual law, which require at least some native-language instruction, schools that only operated esl programs have not been eligible to receive federal funds.

However, although Fairfax County's program does not receive federal financial assistance, it has since become the only school system using the esl method that has received approval from federal officials, a curious finale to a drama that began in acrimony.

In 1975, the Education Department's office for civil rights (ocr) reviewed Fairfax County's esl program and later threatened to cite school officials for "noncompliance" with the requirements of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act--the same grounds as those for the Supreme Court's Lau case--because students were not taught in their native language.

What followed was a bitter five-year struggle between county and federal officials, who threatened to file suit against the school system and to withhold about $18 million in federal aid.

The ocr withdrew its threat in 1980, after subsequent compliance reviews found "substantial changes" and improvements in the program. In a letter to county officials, the office noted that the county's esl program "is substantially different from the program that was judged to be out of compliance" and that students in the program were neither "adversely affected in content area by the lack of native language support" nor "prematurely submerged in the mainstream" of regular classes.

The Education Department's retreat from its earlier position was reinforced a year later when Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell withdrew the proposed Lau regulations that were promulgated under the Carter Administration to enforce the federal bilingual-education requirements.

In doing so, Secretary Bell said school districts would be given greater flexibility in choosing the best method of teaching "language-minority" students.

Mr. Jones, the former Fairfax County school board member whose office at the Education Department has been charged with drawing up the proposed replacement for the current bilingual-education law, was asked last week if his experience during the county's struggles with the Carter Administration influenced his support of the policy change.

"Sure, practical experience plays a part in what makes good public policy," he said. "But I believe English-as-a-second-language programs stand on their records, and Fairfax County's program stands on its record. What we're really trying to do [in proposing the policy change] is to provide 16,000 school systems with options as to what kind of programs best suit their students' needs."

Program Defended

Esther J. Eisenhower, director of the county's esl program, also defended the record of the school system's program.

"There are those who believe we were politically motivated by anti-Carter Administration sentiment. We felt it [the esl approach] was right for our children, and we think we are the ones best qualified to find the best method to teach our children," she said.

Ms. Eisenhower said the "first wave of refugees" were professionals and military personnel whose children did not need much esl instruction. But in recent years, she said, the school system has seen an increase in "boat people" and others whose countries are at war and who are from "lower socio-economic groups."

Approximately 62 percent of the county's new "language-minority" students spoke no English at all when they first enrolled, and 60 percent are refugees, according to Ms. Eisenhower. In any group of 25 esl students, she said, there are between 5 and 17 different languages represented.

To meet the educational needs of some of the new immigrants--often high-school students with third- and fourth-grade-level skills--school officials are developing a "literacy program" focused on students age 15 and older, Ms. Eisenhower added. In that program, students who have "never had the opportunity" to at-tend school in their native countries will be taught an elementary-level curriculum by esl teachers from the elementary grades.

"They can't just transfer skills and so we have to teach content area," explained the director.

The success of Fairfax County's program, in spite of its diverse student population, has attracted the attention of school officials from across the country as well as foreign educators. "We have literally become a mecca," Ms. Eisenhower said, adding that since the start of the school year, officials from 83 school systems have reviewed the Fairfax program.

Students Mainstreamed

All of the county's esl curriculum materials, which "interface with every facet of the the regular curriculum," have been developed by staff members, according to the director. In addition, she said, they have developed a handbook for parents and students that is available in 11 languages.

"Our students don't stay in the program one minute longer than is necessary before they are mainstreamed," Ms. Eisenhower explained. In the elementary schools, she said, some esl students are "out in two years," an achievement she attributed to the county's "well-trained teachers and a viable curriculum."

However, the state board of education has only recently approved certification standards for esl teachers, which will take effect next year. Ms. Eisenhower said that despite the absence of state certification requirements, the county has not made any "concessions" on the level of its teaching standards.

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