PROMISE Initiative: Participants Can’t Ignore Students’ Native Languages

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 17, 2007 2 min read
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A research-based initiative being piloted in 15 schools in six school districts in California requires participating schools to commit to “bilingualism, biliteracy, and multiculturalism” in teaching English-language learners, according to Jan Gustafson, the director of the project, called the PROMISE Initiative. (Its long name is: Pursuing Regional Opportunities for Mentoring, Innovation, and Success for English Learners.)

Six Southern California county offices of education launched the initiative three years ago with a federal grant of $500,000. The pilot project started in September. Each of the six school districts pays an annual fee of $10,000 to participate.

By 2009, the PROMISE Initiative aims to produce findings of how best to educate English-language learners that are backed up with proof from participating schools. Areas of focus include curriculum, assessment, professional development, and parent involvement. But from the start, the schools accepted to participate had to give a nod to research that favors bilingual education over English-only methods and promise to incorporate the use of students’ native languages in instruction. This is required even of schools that employ the default method in California for ELLs: “structured English immersion.”

As most of you probably know, California voters passed a ballot initiative in 1998 that curtailed bilingual education. Under that state law, schools can provide bilingual education as the primary means of instruction only to children whose parents asked for a waiver from English-immersion programs.

Most of the schools in the PROMISE initiative are running bilingual programs for some of their ELLs through the waiver process. But the rest are expected to “be creative” and find a way to incorporate native-language instruction, such as through after-school programs, Ms. Gustafson said.

She acknowledged in a phone interview with me this week that supporting the use of native-language instruction in California is “an uphill battle.” But it’s clearly a battle that the PROMISE initiative is willing to fight.

The PROMISE initiative received national attention when its leaders testified about the No Child Left Behind Act and ELLs at a subcommittee hearing in March of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor. Read the testimony here.

See an earlier related post, “Bilingual Education Grows in Texas, Declines in Some Other States.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.