Burbank Leader

Wednesday, October 29, 1997

Bilingual Education Opponents Aren't Telling the Truth

This letter is in response to the number of recent articles appearing in the Leader related to the failure of bilingual education.
     More importantly, it is meant to bring to the attention of readers the previously unpublicized and unacknowledged fact that there are bilingual programs that are highly effective in meeting both the academic and linguistic needs of our Spanish-speaking children. It is also important that the public be informed that English Language Immersion Programs can and will not accomplish the high level of English proficiency being advocated by the opponents of bilingual education.
     I have been an educator for 30 years as an English immersion classroom teacher for grades two through six, an English-as-a-second-language resource teacher and a principal in a traditional bilingual and primary language school for the past 14 years. Because of my varied educational experiences, I feel highly qualified to address these politically motivated issues, as well as the attributes of the bilingual program and the limitations of the English Immersion Program.
     An outstanding bilingual program has been in effect since 1991 at George Washington Elementary School, a California Distinguished School in Burbank and a recent recipient of the California Golden Bell Award for its English Language Acquisition Program. I invite Ron Unz and any other opponents of bilingual education to visit our school.
     Here they will see first-hand why this important program is so successful. They will also see how it is producing literate English-speaking students using Spanish, the child's primary language, as a basis for instruction in order to build a solid foundation for learning English.
     No one involved in bilingual education would deny the fact that the primary goal for every child is to learn English, although Mr. Unz and his supporters would lead you, the public, to believe otherwise. However, the most compelling challenge is how to help a child achieve literacy in English, which is much more than just speaking English in order to become a truly productive citizen.
     This will not happen for most children after only one year in an oral English Immersion Program. Remember, prior to beginning school, English-speaking children have five to six years to practice speaking English, and only then are they ready to learn to read in their first language. How can we expect Spanish-speaking children to perform differently with only one year of English instruction?
     Let me explain why English Immersion Programs will and did not work. When children come to school with limited discourse and experiences in their preschool years, they do not have a strong foundation for building a second language. While they learn to speak English, one to two years of cognitive learning is lost.
     Then, just as before the inception of bilingual education, most of these children will find themselves relegated to low-ability groups and unable to achieve academically. Only those students who come with a strong foundation in their first language or who are gifted will find themselves succeeding.
     The question then has to be asked: Is this English-only campaign a way to deceive Latino parents into believing that English-only classes will be their child's ticket to success, or is it really a way to withhold the opportunity for their children to become truly literate in English? These are issues that must be addressed if the public is to be fully aware of the intent of this politically motivated English-only movement.
     It is also important to acknowledge that not all bilingual programs have been successful, just as many English-speaking programs are not effective.
     What makes this program at Washington effective and others less successful? The following comprise the critical components of Washington's program and are necessary in order for Spanish-speaking children to achieve literacy in English. First, the program must be staffed by credentialed teachers who are fluent in Spanish, not by teaching assistants.
     Second, access to the core curriculum must be in the child's primary language as a foundation for cognitive learning. Third, oral English language development must be taught daily, and the class needs to be teamed with an English-only class to provide for natural language practice.
     Last, transition to English-only classes needs to occur only at the end of third grade or the beginning of fourth grade, so that a strong foundation of skills are developed in the primary language, which can then be transferred successfully into English. In addition, and most importantly, Latino parents are, then, able to support their children academically at home and are not left out of their child's educational development.
     The program at Washington incorporates all of these elements, and, because of them, has been highly successful. This is validated by the fact that all students in grades four and five have transitioned into a total English instructional program. The number of these students receiving Presidential Excellence and Improvement Awards based on grades and performance has been significant and personally rewarding.
     Our Spanish-speaking students deserve a greater opportunity to become literate, not just orally proficient, as the English Immersion proponents would have us believe. The public and Latino parents cannot be deceived with the pretense that an English-only program will open the doors to literacy for these children, when, in effect, for most it may well close them forever. Let us not cripple them in two languages and destroy their self-esteem at the same time.
     Again, come to Washington School, and see how an exemplary bilingual program is producing English-literate students, proud of who they are and what they can do cognitively and linguistically in their second language ~ English.
JOAN BACA is principal of George Washington Elementary School in Burbank.