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L.A. Mulls Rewards for Shifting Students Out of Bilingual Ed.

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The nation's second-largest school district may hold out a financial carrot for schools that successfully--and promptly--move children out of bilingual-education programs.

The proposal in Los Angeles marks a groundbreaking effort by a large urban district to reward schools for shifting limited-English-proficient students into the mainstream. Observers said this month that the message such a plan would send was more important than the relatively small amount of money being discussed.

The proposal is one of several changes now under debate in the 649,000-student district's "master plan for English learners." Since 1988, the plan has guided the schooling of the district's LEP students, who make up 46 percent of its enrollment.

Another proposed change would add to the document recommendations for teaching children who speak nonstandard forms of English--such as African-Americans who speak so-called black English. Though it would not classify those students as LEP, the draft calls on schools to better meet their distinct educational needs.

The draft plan had a public airing last week before school board members, who may vote on it next month. The debate is certain to be closely watched across the country.

Los Angeles has more LEP students--300,980--than any other district in the nation, and is a pioneer in programs that give students some instruction in their native tongues and gradually ease them into English.

The proposed changes come as public scrutiny of bilingual education is growing, with particular attention being paid to how long children stay in special programs and what they learn there. Critics charge that children in bilingual programs do not learn English fast enough or well enough.

The California legislature is considering several bills that seek to limit how much students are taught in their native languages and how long they remain in bilingual programs.

The proposed master plan in Los Angeles offers a lesson in how schools are struggling to educate LEP students while juggling demographic, political, and fiscal realities. Though it stops far short of abandoning bilingual education, the plan represents an attempt to place some limits on it.

For example, many researchers say it takes a child five to seven years to become proficient in "academic" English. The draft plan suggests that LEP children who enter the Los Angeles schools in kindergarten spend no more than five years in bilingual programs. Middle and high school students would spend three to four years.

"We're attempting to address some of the public's perception that kids are just left in these programs forever," said Jessie G. Franco, the district's assistant superintendent for language acquisition and bilingual development. "We're trying to balance what's right for kids with the politics."

Savvy Politics

Many experts agree that schools have few formal incentives, financial or otherwise, to move children out of bilingual education.

Most schools receive extra money for each LEP student to pay for special programs. When children have learned enough English to succeed in the mainstream, they lose the LEP label, and the school loses the additional money.

The draft plan would give Los Angeles schools a bonus based on the number of children who had gained enough English skills to lose their LEP status. Schools would use the money to offer those students after-school tutoring and other services.

Though the pot of money would be relatively small--about $3 million a year--many said it would send a strong message.

Though the idea may sound good politically, "there needs to be a lot of accountability built in," said Migdalia Romero, the chairwoman of the department of curriculum and teaching at Hunter College in New York City. The district must guard against pushing children out before they are ready, she said.

Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., and an expert on bilingual education, agreed.

"It's a simplistic way of assessing progress," he said. "But given bilingual education's public relations problem, maybe it's not such a bad thing."

Robert Bilovsky, the principal of Murchison Street School in the heavily Hispanic area of east Los Angeles, said the proposal sends a clear message that schools should feed students into the mainstream as soon as they're ready.

LEP students make up 70 percent of his K-5 school of 820 students. For each such student, the school receives an additional $188--a fairly small amount in a district that spends roughly $4,400 on each student per year.

Mr. Bilovsky said the money he receives now does not influence whether a child remains in a bilingual program.

"We're not going to hold kids up for $188," Mr. Bilovsky said. "But these [proposed] incentives send a powerful message to teachers, parents, and administrators about goals."

The Los Angeles proposal has a familiar ring. California's state schools chief, Delaine Eastin, has suggested that schools be rewarded for moving students through bilingual programs.

Each year, about 5.5 percent of LEP students across California are redesignated--meaning they are deemed fully proficient in English. Los Angeles' redesignation rate has jumped to 8 percent this year from 4.6 percent in 1994, when Superintendent Sidney A. Thompson first made it a priority.

'Black English'

The inclusion of speakers of dialects such as "black English" in the draft has also drawn attention.

Since 1990, Los Angeles has run a program that teaches African-American students standard English as a second language. (See Education Week, June 1, 1994.)

Some Hispanic leaders last week voiced concern that including those groups would further dilute the money available for bilingual education. But Ms. Franco, the assistant superintendent, said students who speak black English or "Spanglish" would not be eligible for state funds intended for LEP students.

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