What Price English?

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Santa Barbara, Calif.

It's difficult to escape history in Santa Barbara.

In this picture-perfect California community, a short drive up the coast from Los Angeles, Spanish-style buildings line streets with names like Cabrillo, De La Guerra, and Ortega. One of the main tourist draws here is the Old Spanish Days Fiesta, a summer celebration of the city's Mexican and Spanish heritage.

But when Santa Barbara school officials recently announced their intention to do away with bilingual education, some Hispanic parents saw the move as a rejection of that ancestry. Outraged parents banded together in January to boycott the schools, holding classes for hundreds of students instead at La Casa de la Raza community center.

Two years earlier, a mirror-image of that scenario played out 90 miles away, at 9th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles--where Hispanic parents rose up in protest for precisely the opposite reason.

Parents there, many of them Latino immigrants working in the city's garment district, didn't want bilingual education at the school. They wanted more English.

The 9th Street boycott quickly became a cause celebre for critics of bilingual education nationwide. The protest led a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and onetime Republican candidate for governor, Ron K. Unz, to launch a ballot measure that could virtually eliminate bilingual education programs in the state. 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 Santa Barbara and Los Angeles tales illustrate how charged an issue bilingual education has become in California, reaching beyond pedagogy and research into the often messy areas of politics and emotion.

And they illustrate the wide disagreement about how language-minority students should be taught: Should they learn in both languages and gradually ease into English, which many experts say in the long run makes for better academic and English skills, or plunge into the new language in the hopes of quickly becoming competitive with native English-speakers?

Statewide polls show the Hispanic community itself divided on the issue, with those surveyed leaning toward supporting Proposition 227.

Accountability Questions

For too long, language experts say, the issue of how best to educate language-minority students has fomented divisive debate, and often the political rhetoric has overshadowed a focus on accountability. 1 ("," March 26, 1998.)

From its inception in California in the 1970s, bilingual education has been oriented toward inputs, process, and compliance, said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor and a former president of the state school board.

"The state assumption was if you have this input, the outputs would take care of themselves. So what the state monitored, and still does, is whether you mounted the program, not its results," Mr. Kirst said. "This helps explain why we are in the debate we are in now."

For now, the state's complex bilingual education landscape is in limbo, with political leaders disagreeing over what exactly is required. The state's bilingual education law expired in 1987, but the state has continued to use its requirement that schools use students' primary languages "when necessary" to ensure equal opportunity.

Until recently, districts could petition the state for a waiver from providing bilingual education. The state school board recently granted districts maximum flexibility over what methodology they use to educate LEP students and the board says such waivers are no longer needed. ("Calif. Board Revises Policy for LEP students," April 15, 1998.)

The state legislature's lower house last week approved a bill that sponsors say would strengthen accountability in exchange for greater local flexibility in teaching LEP students. Some speculate that, should it pass into law, the bill could undercut support for Proposition 227.

The implications of the debate are enormous for the one-fourth of the state's 5.6 million schoolchildren who are considered limited-English-proficient, and for the continuing efforts to raise the sagging performance of the state's education system as a whole.

It has become clear that California's educational performance increasingly depends on its soaring population of LEP students, whose numbers have more than tripled since 1982. California has been playing catch up ever since.

Implementing Theory

In the mid-1960s, students in Santa Barbara's districts were predominantly white and English-speaking. Today, 66 percent of the 6,120 elementary students are Latino, and 44 percent are LEP.

In January, the school board voted unanimously to begin the 1998-99 school year with a more English-intensive approach, though help will still be available in students' native languages. Most parents, they say, support the move. Currently, bilingual education is offered in the elementary grades, with at least 50 percent of instruction time in English.

In arguing for the change, district leaders pointed to troubling statistics:

  • Only a third of all Santa Barbara students in grades K-3 read at or above grade level in English or Spanish.
  • While more Latino students are enrolling in college-preparatory classes in high school, only a smattering who were formerly classified as LEP do so.
  • And, in a district where up to 80 percent of seniors go to college, only 14 percent of Latino seniors took the SAT in 1996, and, as a group, they posted the lowest scores.

The parents who kept roughly 200 students out of school for three days in January in protest of the decision say the district is unfairly blaming bilingual education for its educational woes. School officials--who acknowledge that the bilingual program has suffered from a lack of consistency--should fix the program rather than throw it away, they say.

And they maintain that some board members who voted to get rid of bilingual education are more interested in political gain than in what's best for students.

'Culture Is Language'

Ruben Rey, a family-service counselor for a local funeral home who has lived in Santa Barbara since 1969, sees irony in the city's proud celebration of the Spanish Days Fiesta.

His three children are all products of Santa Barbara's bilingual education, and his wife is a veteran bilingual teacher. Mr. Rey recalls when his eldest daughter worked at a downtown shop about a year ago. Her boss, he said, was bothered by her speaking Spanish at work with customers.

Such stories crop up among Hispanic parents here. "It's a very beautiful city," said Mr. Rey, a community activist who helped organize the parent boycott. "But behind this beauty, there's a subtle undercurrent of intolerance."

Parents like Meg Goetz de Gaona made clear that they see the district's move against a larger backdrop. They point out that in a community where Hispanics make up roughly a third of the 90,000 residents, the school board is all Anglo. Some Hispanic parents say they are unrepresented and largely ignored.

"Our children are Latinos," said Ms. Goetz de Gaona, who spoke in Spanish, as did most parents interviewed for this article. "Culture is language, and language is culture. And what they're saying is they don't respect either."

The nurse practitioner fears that her daughters, now 12 and 9, will begin to lose their Spanish as they move into all-English classes. Already, she said, her 7th grade daughter does not want to speak Spanish, even at home.

"I want my children bilingual," she said. "It just makes sense in this community and this economy."

Mirna Ramos, the mother of two teenagers, would like to see more emphasis on Spanish, not less. She would like to see the schools start Spanish courses for native speakers, rather than offering Spanish only as a foreign language geared toward native English-speakers.

What irks Ver¢nica Hern ndez, a mother of two who works off and on as a housekeeper for some of the city's wealthier families, is seeing those parents urging their own children to learn Spanish.

"Those children are learning Spanish in their private schools. Or they go to Spain for a study program, They see the value of it, so why can't we have the same?" said Ms. Hern ndez, who moved from Mexico to California two decades ago. "Spanish is a world language with great importance. And why the schools wouldn't want to help maintain that, I don't know."

Urban Challenges

But in Los Angeles, Ilda Mendez says she can take care of Spanish at home. The 30-year-old mother of three wants the schools to give her daughters what she cannot: English. And to Ms. Mendez, English means opportunity.

Ms. Mendez, a seamstress in a nearby factory, came to Los Angeles from Mexico 10 years ago with an 8th grade education. In 1996, she joined many other parents in a boycott organized through Las Familias del Pueblo community center. She and the other parents eventually switched their children from a bilingual program at 9th Street Elementary School into one that uses more English instruction.

At Las Familias del Pueblo, where Spanish signs advertise English and sewing classes for adults, nearly 100 children produce a din in Spanish and English. Neighbor to a chicken takeout restaurant and a burger shack, Las Familias takes in bus loads of children who receive free after-school care while their parents toil in nearby garment factories.

It was here that Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and the center's founder, saw that the children at Las Familias, many of whom attend 9th Street Elementary, could speak English, but not read or write it well. Students brought homework that was virtually all in Spanish, the outspoken activist said. Parents were becoming uneasy. And Ms. Callaghan was convinced that the school was dragging its feet in allowing parents to switch en masse out of the bilingual program into the school's English-language-development alternative.

Principal Eleanor Vargas-Page says she simply followed the school district's rules, which at the time called for parents to meet individually with school officials to discuss the change.

She notes that 9th Street Elementary has made substantial improvements in its bilingual program since she took over five years ago. Back then, the principal said, bilingual education was "hit or miss." Now, there is more-structured English-as-a-second-language time.

In fact, Ms. Vargas-Page said, at the time of the boycott, students in the bilingual track had just 1« hours of direct Spanish instruction a day; the rest of the day was spent mostly in English.

"The picture painted was that English was just at lunch and playtime," the former bilingual education teacher said. "Well, it's just not true."

After the boycott, 90 children left 9th Street's bilingual education program; 15 have since switched back, Ms. Vargas-Page said.

The school embodies the challenges facing the inner-city schools that most language-minority students attend. About half of 9th Street's students are considered homeless. All are poor. And the school is overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking: Of 480 pre-K-5 students, about 400 are LEP.

Survival Over Philosophy

While Ms. Callaghan says bilingual education is not responsible for all the ills in California schools, she sees the June ballot measure she helped craft as a critical first step toward righting the wrongs.

"This is not about political correctness. This is not a philosophical issue for our parents--it's survival," the 50-year-old priest said. "There's a serious gap between the experts and the parents here."

To her, the bottom-line question is how the children will learn English when they live in Spanish-speaking homes and neighborhoods, watch Spanish TV, and speak Spanish on the playground to their Spanish-speaking friends. "So if the kids don't learn English in school," Ms. Callaghan asked, "you tell me, when?"

That's a question Maria Hern ndez was afraid to ask.

The 45-year-old mother of four came to Los Angeles from Mexico soon after her youngest, 8-year-old Ashley, was born. She says she was terrified by stories she heard from her neighbors about their children in junior high and high school who went through bilingual programs and still could not read and write English well.

Ms. Hern ndez, who helps support her three eldest daughters in Mexico, speaks only Spanish at home and says that Ashley needs English at school. "They haven't convinced me that I should wait until 4th or 5th grade for her to go into English," she said. "I can't take the chance and wait."

Two years after her daughter switched into the English program at 9th Street, Ashley translates for her mother at the market, the doctor's office, and the post office.

Ms. Hern ndez rubs her red-rimmed eyes with hands stained blue by the fabric she handles at the factory six days a week. She glances at Ashley, who is watching a video with other children waiting to be picked up at the community center. "I pray to God that my daughter learns English," she said, biting her lip. "Because if not, I don't know what will happen to us."

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