English Spoken Here
|California legislators have made seven attempts in the last 10 years to overhaul the state's bilingual education regulations.|
At George Washington, students in the bilingual classes are taught reading, writing, social studies, math, and science in Spanish. This takes place in the morning; after lunch, the students are mixed with English-speaking students for the rest of day, with instruction conducted in English. "As they move up through the program," says 1st grade teacher Susan Hale, "more of their core subject areas are moved into English."
This morning, in Room 19, Hale is sitting next to a blackboard while her students—dressed in red, white, and blue uniforms—sit on the floor in a small semicircle. The teacher has asked the children to think of words that describe el verano—summer. When they have enough words, Hale will help them compose a poem.
The students shout out words in quick succession.
Children learn best, Hale says during a recess break, when they are taught in their native language. "Otherwise," she says, "they'll be two or three years behind their peers. And they'll always be playing catch-up." Yes, she admits, the children want to learn English, and they pick it up fast. "But we have to give them time to develop skills that allow them to process the information." The immersion method, she believes, simply doesn't do that. "These children need to be mainstreamed," she says, sounding a lot like Gloria Tuchman. "They need to be a part of the majority culture. They need to become productive citizens somewhere down the road, in English. But this is the bridge that gets them there. And without the bridge, we're asking them to jump into 10 feet of water and telling them they have to swim."
Hale and her colleagues are worried about the proposed initiative and what it could mean for their program at George Washington. "No one would put their child into a Chinese-only classroom and expect them from kindergarten on to be successful if their child didn't speak Chinese," Hale says, "and yet that's what we may be asking of these children if the initiative passes."
"I think the unfortunate situation is that the public is not getting the information about bilingual programs that do work," says Eilene Marston, who teaches 4th and 5th grades at the school.
"I don't think the initiative process is the right place for setting school policy," adds principal Baca.
Of the 31 students in Miho Tyszka's 4th grade classroom, all entered kindergarten speaking little or no English. Now, their conversation skills are good, but they still need work with reading and writing. "They gain confidence quickly," Tyszka says. By the end of the school year, she adds, they will be doing just as well as the children who only speak English.
Nine-year-old Leticia Castillo has a mother from El Salvador and a father from Mexico. She wants to be a doctor or a teacher when she grows up. "I'm learning English," she says proudly. "I'm doing good. I still have to practice a little spelling some words. In my home, I speak a little English with my parents and a lot of Spanish so I won't forget. And with my brothers only in English."
She offers to read a report she wrote on the desert, which her teacher has posted on the wall. Speaking in a clear, Spanish-accented voice, she says: "In the desert there are many things. In the desert the plants don't need much water. The cactus keeps water in its skin because it has thick skin. Animals in the desert come out during the night because it is not that hot and they listen better. It is so hot you can cook an egg on a rock. All the animals are adapted to the hotness. It is so hot and sandy that some plants grow after it rains. The next day it is dry again and the woodpeckers drink water from the cactus."
Baca wishes critics of bilingual education would come visit her school to see what a successful program looks like. Recently, she even wrote an open letter to the local newspaper, the Burbank Leader, inviting Ron Unz to come take a look. So far, he hasn't taken her up on the offer.
Not all bilingual education programs in the state of California, however, are like the one at George Washington Elementary School. Qualified bilingual teachers—even though they are paid up to $5,000 more per year than regular teachers—are hard to come by, so many districts simply find ways to make do with whatever staffing they can get. "Only about a third of the classrooms referred to as bilingual are actually taught by a credentialed teacher," notes Alexander Sapiens, an assistant professor of bilingual education at San Jose State University. "Thus, many bilingual education programs have not succeeded because they were not adequately designed or implemented."
California legislators have made seven attempts in the last 10 years to overhaul the state's bilingual education regulations, which officially expired in 1987 but have been kept alive by the state department of education. Last year's bill, sponsored by state Senator Alpert and state Assemblyman Firestone, would have allowed districts to fashion whatever bilingual education approach they believe works best while at the same time requiring districts to measure the educational progress of California's 1.4 million LEP students, something that has not been done before. But in September, the bill was blocked by Democrats in the assembly. Ron Unz seized on the bill's failure to further his cause. "It looks like the initiative process is the best route to achieving a solution," he told a local reporter.
"There's a lack of accountability and consistency in California's bilingual programs," admits Laurie Olsen, executive director of California Tomorrow, an advocacy group that looks at immigration issues. "Does it need attention? Yes. But the Unz initiative doesn't do that."
'This untested proposal ... would impose a single approach upon
all schools and teachers in this diverse state.'
Olsen is co-chairwoman of Citizens for an Educated America: No on Unz. Representing many of the state's education groups—including the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers, the Association of California School Administrators, and the California Association for Bilingual Education, among others—the coalition launched a counterattack against the initiative in November. At a press conference in Sacramento, Olsen called the proposed measure an "unreasonable and extreme experiment."
"This untested proposal," she said, "drafted by someone with no background in education, would impose a single, cookie-cutter approach upon all schools and teachers in this diverse state."
Olsen says the initiative can be defeated "once we get the message out to California voters." She's unconcerned by the results of the Los Angeles Times poll. "It's still way too early in the game," she says.
But Gloria Tuchman is so confident of the initiative's victory in June that she's already looking beyond California. "This is only the beginning," she says. "It's going to spread to other states. I know that. People all over the country are waiting to see what's going to happen in California."
The initiative, Tuchman says, is the last resort in her struggle to stamp out mandated bilingual education. The former school board member has grown wary of the legislative process; it's time for the people to call the shots.
"I will not trust the politicians in Sacramento to take care of the situation," she says. "I've given up on that. There are always compromises you have to make, and I won't do that at the expense of the children."