English-Language Learners

Blacks’ Assignment To Bilingual Classes In S.F. Is Criticized

By Peter Schmidt — June 12, 1991 7 min read

The San Francisco Unified School District is changing the way it assigns children to bilingual-education classes in the wake reports that hundreds of disadvantaged black students have been placed in such classes.

According to an analysis of elementary-school data, more than 750 black children were assigned to bilingual classes this year, many without parental consent, for the sake of integration.

The analysis, conducted by the San Fran also found that English-speaking black students were more than twice as likely as English-speaking whites o be assigned to the bilingual classes and that more than 80 percent of black students assigned to bilingual classes had tested below grade level.

School-district officials have confirmed the newspaper’s findings.

The practices have stirred up a firestorm of criticism, led by a coalition of organizations representing African-Americans and language minorities.

District officials responded last week that students had been inappropriately placed in bilingual classes as a result of an outdated district policy that had mandated that at least one-third of students in bilingual classes be English-speaking to ensure that the classes were integrated.

The policy, based on a state law that expired in 1987, continued to guide the placement of students in San Francisco schools this year, district officials acknowledged.’

But, they said, it was being revised before the Examiner published its story.

Following the newspaper report, the district this month took steps to let parents choose whether to place their children in bilingual programs.

The district also announced that it had begun a study of the little-researched subject of how the achievement of English-speaking black children is affected by their placement in bilingual classes.

Bilingual-education experts, meanwhile, said other districts in California and other states may be placing disadvantaged English-speaking students in bilingual-education programs in an effort to integrate the classes.

“This is clearly not unique to San Francisco,” said Peter D. Roos, a civil-rights lawyer who has represented language-minority students in suits against several states and school districts.

Test Scores Sampled

The Examiner found that black students, who make up 18 percent of the 64,000-student district’s enrollment, account for 50 percent of the English-speakers assigned to bilingual-education classes.

The newspaper sampled the test scores of the 750 black students placed in bilingual classes and found that 80 percent scored below average and that 15 percent scored below the 10th percentile.

“Some of those classrooms have kids who speak the native language and then just black kids,” said Luann S. McGriff, president of the San Francisco branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “That is not desegregating the classroom.”

The district also placed another 325 children who speak a language other than English at home in bilingual classes in a third language, the newspaper reported. Ligaya Avenida, the district’s director of bilingual education, last week argued that the 325 children receiving instruction in a third language are fluent English-speakers who can benefit from instruction in the new tongue.

In a memo to elementary-school administrators issued in response to the Examiner report, Superintendent of Schools Ramon Cortines said bilingual education should not be “at the expense of disadvantaged English-only-speaking children.”

“Children should not be placed in a class because it is numerically advantageous,” Mr. Cortines said in the memo.

The superintendent said he would seek to revise the district’s policy to prohibit principals from enrolling English-speaking children who are two years or more behind grade level in bilingual classes.

Cortines Criticized

At a press conference after the Examiner story was published, a coalition representing the NAACP, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the Latino Issues Forum held Mr. Cortines responsible for the mismanagement of the bilingual program.

“Bilingual-education classes have been used as a ‘dumping ground’ for educationally disadvantaged students or students with behavior problems,” Kathy Owyang Turner, acting executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, said.

“Why are we multiplying the problems of special-needs students even more?” Ms. Turner asked.

Agreed Ms. McGriff of the NAACP, “If a student is not at grade level, and you put him in a bilingual class, he is not going to function.”

“Some of those classes that they call bilingual are not really bilingual,” she charged. “They are taught primarily in the native language. It borders on educational malfeasance, what they have done.”

But Norman C. Gold, a bilingual- education consultant for the California Department of Education who monitors district compliance with state bilingual-education laws, questioned whether disadvantaged black students were being harmed by their placement in bilingual programs.

“There is some data to establish that black kids are doing better in the bilingual classrooms,” Mr. Gold said.

‘Administrative Problem’

Mr. Gold said San Francisco has dramatically improved its bilingual- education program in recent years and that the misassignment of students to bilingual classes “is not a bilingual-education problem at all.” “It is a problem in administrative follow-through in getting kids matched to the right program,” he said.

The federal Bilingual Education act provides that up to 40 percent of the students in a bilingual-education program may be English-peaking. The goal of the provision, bilingual-education law experts aid, is to allow the classes to be integrated and to provide students with English-speaking role models.

Mr. Roos, co-director of a San Francisco-based national organization called Multi-Cultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, said the federal provision has likely prompted other districts to require mixes of students in bilingual classes similar to those found in San Francisco.

“We have such a paucity of fully trained bilingual teachers that it does strike me that we spread them around too thinly by insisting on having these classes fully integrated,” Mr. Roos said.

In California, a state law that expired four year ago required that districts have bilingual classes and that no more than two-thirds of the students in a bilingual class could be limited-English-proficient.

Even though the state now only requires that districts provide services to LEP students, and does not even mandate that they set up bilingual classrooms, San Francisco schools have continued to assign children to bilingual classrooms according to the old formula.

San Francisco’s court-ordered integration plan also calls for class room diversity, but theoretically exempts bilingual classes, stipulating only that the children be integrated during 20 percent of the school day and allowing such periods as recess and music to fulfill the requirement, district officials said.

The district, which draws about 50 percent of its enrollment from homes where a language other than English spoken, has established 241 transitional bilingual-education classrooms in its elementary schools.

In those classrooms, teachers, most of whom have bilingual credentials and some of whom receive help from aides, provide LEP students with extra help in learning the same subject matter taught in regular courses.

The district’s bilingual classrooms last month contained about 4,920 students who were limited-English-proficient and about 1,560 who were English-fluent and did not require parental permission to be assigned to the classes, Ms. Avenida said.

Mr. Cortines last month sent a letter to parents notifying them of the kind of classroom their child was in. The parents were given a choice of which type of program their children would be assigned next year.

Minority advocates last week criticized the letter sent to parents as misleading, however, because it told parents that English-speaking students in bilingual programs “have the opportunity to learn a second language and to appreciate the culture of that language.”

While James J. Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, said English-speaking black and white students in transitional bilingual-education classes may be no worse off than their counterparts in regular classes, he criticized the district for not providing such students with “appropriate educational services.”

“To place an English-speaking child in a transitional bilingual-education program almost ipso facto means that they are shortchanging that child,” Mr. Lyons said, adding that the same applies to classes in English as a second language.

Mr. Cortines said, however, that the district would revamp its bilingual-education program to ensure that English-speaking students in bilingual classes receive two-way bilingual instruction, rather than transitional bilingual instruction. Under the two-way approach, the goal of the classes would be to help both English-speaking and LEP children become bilingual, not just help the minority-language speakers learn English.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 1991 edition of Education Week as Blacks’ Assignment To Bilingual Classes In S.F. Is Criticized


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