Prop. 227 Could Torpedo 'Two Way' Language Programs
Charles E. Hill III is not your typical consumer of bilingual education.
The 40-year-old lawyer and his wife, Susan Sheldon,--both English-speakers--exhaustively researched the private and public school options last year for their now 6-year-old twins, Aaron and Hannah.
Eventually, they chose Alvarado Elementary School, one of six primary schools in the 66,000-student San Francisco district that offer what is known as two-way bilingual education, or dual immersion.
Such programs mix native English-speakers with children who speak another language in the same classroom--at Alvarado, it's Spanish. The programs aim to produce students who can speak, read, and write in two languages.
"Intuitively, we felt our kids would do much better at learning another language if they were immersed in it," Mr. Hill said. "And being bilingual really opens doors careerwise."
Critics of bilingual education charge that it segregates poor and minority students, the children traditional bilingual programs usually serve. But two-way programs have largely escaped the politics surrounding bilingual education. And they have won converts to bilingual education among middle-class, consumer-minded parents like the Hills.
While most experts agree two-way programs boast an impressive track record, in California they would fall under the restrictions contained in an upcoming ballot measure that could virtually eliminate bilingual education in the state's public schools.
Under Proposition 227, which goes before voters on June 2, students with limited English skills would be taught, in most cases, for no more than a year in special English classes before moving into the mainstream. The measure's author, Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has said English-speaking students could continue in two-way programs.
Enrichment vs. Remedial
But what's less clear is how easily the limited-English-proficient children who make up the other half of two-way classrooms could do the same. Under Proposition 227, LEP children would have to meet at least one of several criteria to win a waiver from the measure's immersion requirement.
As a result, Mr. Unz's campaign office has been flooded with calls from a small, but vocal group of parents from two-way programs statewide who plan to fight the measure. Last week, the Clinton administration joined the battle against the measure. ("Administration, Congress Weigh In on Bilingual Education," in This Week's News.
Two-way programs like Alvarado Elementary School's aren't what most people think of when they hear "bilingual education."
"These are seen as enrichment programs," said Donna Christian, the director of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit research group based in Washington. Unfortunately, she added, other forms of bilingual education are often seen as just the opposite. "And that's the biggest downfall of bilingual education--it became equated with remedial education."
Two-way programs have flourished in recent years, springing up in big-city districts like Chicago, Houston, and New York, as well as many California communities.
While it is clear most of the nation's more than 3 million LEP students are not educated in two-way programs, no one knows exactly how many such programs exist or how many children they enroll. Ms. Christian's group recently identified roughly 200 programs in more than 100 districts in a national directory of two-way programs. Most are small, elementary school programs that combine Spanish and English. But languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Navajo, and Russian are on offer, too.
In San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood, on a playground overlooking Victorian row houses, Phyllis Matsuno starts the day at Alvarado Elementary the same way she does every day. The principal welcomes her students, then leads them in the Pledge of Allegiance: first in English, then Spanish.
One-third of the 425 students in the K-5 school are considered LEP. About 42 percent are Hispanic, 29 percent are non-Hispanic white, and 17 percent are African-American. The rest are Filipino, American Indian, Korean, Chinese, and "other nonwhite."
Alvarado's two-way program, which enrolls about 160 of the school's students, is part of San Francisco's deliberate effort to promote bilingual education as enrichment and to encourage all students to learn a second, or third, language. And it reflects a push toward foreign languages in the elementary grades that is occurring across the country, Ms. Christian said.
The city's two-way programs typically have long waiting lists, and parents must choose to enroll their children in them.
"What we've seen is a groundswell of support for programs like these," said district Superintendent Waldemar Rojas. "Those are the schools that are increasingly desirable."
And they are desirable not just for the cross-cultural experiences they foster, but because research suggests they can improve overall academic performance--as well as language skills--for both native English-speakers and LEP students.
At Alvarado, students in the two-way program start in kindergarten with 85 percent to 90 percent of the school day in Spanish. Each year, the amount of time in English increases until the two languages are roughly equal by 4th grade.
During a math lesson in Lu¡s Sierra's 3rd grade class, he occasionally has to remind his charges to speak in Spanish. But by now, after a number of years in the program, the students easily switch back and forth. An 8-year-old native English-speaker, explaining to his teacher why he got a math problem wrong, tells Mr. Sierra it's because of "el fantasma." That's "the ghost."
Mr. Sierra mixes children at their work tables by language. The Spanish-speakers, a majority in the class of 20, help the English-speakers when it's Spanish time, and vice versa during English.
That dynamic, he said, makes a critical difference. "It means everyone's equal."
Initially, Stephen Rosen, a public defender whose two children are in Alvarado's dual-language program, was a skeptic. He said he thought learning in Spanish would distract his English-speaking sons from basic academics.
"I was totally wrong," he said. "I can see Spanish has been a real added stimulus for the whole learning process."
Crossing Language Lines
Throwing together children and parents who might otherwise not cross paths is a bonus of two-way programs, said Rosa Apodaca, San Francisco's assistant superintendent for bilingual education.
She points to African-American families enrolling their children in the district's Korean and Chinese programs. And some Latino parents are clamoring for two-way programs at their schools.
Juanita Flores, the mother of a 3rd grader in Alvarado Elementary's program, would like to see more connections between Latino and Anglo parents. Like many of the Spanish-speaking families, hers lives in the predominantly Latino Mission neighborhood, a bus ride away from Alvarado.
But she is gratified that her son, Leopoldo, has English-speaking friends from the two-way program. And at home, where Spanish dominates, he picks up books in English and Spanish.
Though she understands the frustration over bilingual education that bred Proposition 227, she fears Leopoldo and others will lose out if it passes.
"I know kids who are 18 years old and can speak English and Spanish, but can't read or write in either," Ms. Flores said in Spanish. "But 227 is not the solution. We need to fight for better schools and programs, like this one."
Like many English-speaking kindergartners in the two-way program, Tomianne DeWeese's son, Wiley, at first had a hard time adjusting to Spanish. But the 6-year-old has since adapted and has made friends with some of his Latino classmates.
"This program attracts parents who might otherwise look at private schools," Ms. DeWeese said. "It's just beginning to dawn on a lot of people that all this could disappear under Prop 227."
Among the multitude of program models that serve LEP students, some researchers have found that two-way programs offer language-minority students the best educational prospects over the long haul.
Those programs are also good for English-speaking youngsters, some research shows. Though most research has focused on LEP students, English-speakers in two-way programs tend to outperform their peers in Spanish and basic academics, too, said Kathryn J. Lindholm, a professor of child development at San Jose State University, who studies two-way students.
While San Francisco has not yet tracked how its two-way students are performing, officials say that early indications show districtwide multilingual students outperforming their monolingual peers.
So, if two-way programs hold such promise, why doesn't every school and community have one?
Schools need the right demographic balance, students who will stick around for more than a year, and well-trained teachers, experts say. And educators are struggling to take the two-way concept into secondary schools, where the curricula become more complex. And though two-way programs generally do not cost more than others designed to serve lep students, they do require a great deal of coordination.
At San Francisco's West Portal Elementary School, educators assembled much of the curriculum from scratch for the school's Cantonese dual-language program.
Only 30 percent of the California's 1.4 million LEP students are enrolled in bilingual education, where students are taught in their native languages for at least part of the school day and gradually ease into English. In bilingual education, as with most pedagogy, where the theory is well-implemented, good results normally follow, research shows.
But critics say that in too many schools, bilingual education has become a dumping ground where qualified teachers are scarce and implementation is spotty. And in too many classrooms, the critics argue, it is an uphill battle to teach students English in classes where all the students are Spanish-speakers and the teacher provides the only consistent model for English.
But critics of two-way programs are few and far between. Even Mr. Unz said the main drawback he sees is that they require a great deal of work to pull off.
"Most I've read about seem quite successful and are popular with parents," he said in a recent interview. "My only concern is whether the Spanish-speaking students are learning English, and most people seem to say yes."