Contra Costa Times

September 16, 1997

Making a Case for Bilingualism:
School Official Says It's Key to Success

Interview with Toni A. Oklan-Arko, Coordinator of Bilingual and English Language Development Services, West Contra Costa Unified School District
By TONY MERCADO, Times Staff Writer

A political battle is brewing in California over the effectiveness of bilingual education.

In one corner, a group of minority parents has joined with political conservatives to push a state ballot initiative that will force public schools to abandon bilingual education in favor of intensive English-only instruction.

The English for the Children initiative states that all California children "shall be taught English as rapidly and effectively as possible." As part of the mandate, schools would largely be prohibited from teaching math, science or social studies in the native language of immigrant children younger than 10.

Supporters of the initiative, who say bilingual education has failed immigrant children, hope to put it before voters next June.

On the opposite end, critics argue the measure seeks only one way to teach all children and is a thinly disguised veil to bash immigrants.

Caught in the middle are more than 1.3 million children throughout the state identified as having limited English-proficiency skills. Roughly 7,000 of them are students in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. About 60 percent of the district's limited English-proficiency students are from Spanish-speaking countries, followed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Laos. Seventy-three languages are spoken in the district.

As head of the district's bilingual education department, Toni Oklan-Arko said she finds the diversity of language among West County's students beautiful, an appreciation of different cultures fostered during a year as a high school exchange students in Colombia.

She said it's important for children to have the skill of a second language to succeed in today's world. That's why she is so vehemently against the English for the Children initiative, a measure she says is misguided and caters to anti-immigrant fears.

Q: How did your experience as an exchange student in a foreign country shape your views on bilingual education today?

A: It's something I've always been able to go back to and empathize with the children and the situations they're in. Here I was, a successful student and a Regent scholar. I studied Latin and French. Even with all of that, going to high school in Colombia, I found myself totally lost. I didn't understand a thing that was going on. When I reflect back on that, I wonder how much easier my life would have been if I had access to something as simple as a textbook in English about the subject matter I was studying so I could read a little about it. That's when I think of the little ones who haven't even learned how to read yet.

Q: Bilingual education could stand to los a lot if the English for the Children initiative gets on the ballot, passes and is enacted. If it does and bilingual programs are lost, how could it affect the children of this district?

A: It'd be disastrous. We've been trying to level the playing field and give every student an equal shot at being successful in school. By removing that, we're creating all sorts of barriers to that. You'd have a classroom of children who don't understand English receiving instruction from a teacher they cannot understand. You can't learn what you don't understand. It's that simple.

Another ugly aspect of this is that it takes away local control, which is what the public education system in this country is supposed to be all about. If the initiative passes, it's going to determine what local boards of education may or may not do. That's a big problem. This is just the first step. What comes next year? What else are they going to say we can or cannot do in public schools?

Q: You've repeatedly said in the past that the goal of any bilingual program is to develop proficiency in English. Won't this initiative just speed up the process by teaching kids in the language they're trying to learn?

A: It absolutely will not speed it up. If anything, it will cause great confusion for the kids. Being surrounded and submerged in English has not been shown to increase the rate of acquisition. It isn't about cramming this into their heads.

I don't understand why there seems to be this strong fear of bilingualism, that there is something wrong with people being bilingual. It seems that the system does everything it possibly can to take away that treasure that these children bring to us, that second language, and replace it with English at the expense of the first language. Yet, as soon as they hit seventh or eighth grade, somehow taking a foreign language is a real positive thing. These kids come with that second language already. Why not keep that?

Q: But the initiative is also reportedly supported by parents who've had their kids in bilingual programs and say learning just isn't happening.

A: These people are disgruntled for whatever reason with their particular educational situation. Their opinions are paraded out there as if this were the norm, rather than the exception. This initiative is a feel-good thing for people who are upset and is not going to make people suddenly proficient in English overnight.

Q: Some people within the California School Boards Association are referring to this initiative as the next Proposition 187. What are your own personal views on it?

A: There definitely is an anti-immigrant tone to it. At least that's what will appeal to the voters about it. Oh, that it's going to eliminate all our problems with these immigrants who are coming in and taking all of our jobs.

The most important thing about the bill is to look at its origin and its authors, namely Ron Unz and Gloria Matta Tuchman. They are both people who have recently failed in election bids, Unz as a candidate for governor in 1994 and Tuchman as state superintendent of public instruction. I believe they ar working on forwarding their political agendas with a hot-button issue. There is a lot of public sentiment that puts blame for a potpourri of problems that society has on immigrants and in this case, on children. But this initiative does nothing to increase their access to programs which will lead them toward greater proficiency in English.

Q: How so?

A: Well, bilingual education is a big, all-encompassing term. It includes a number of programs and approaches to teaching. What the initiative is after is the portion of bilingual education called primary language instruction, where instruction is provided to students in a language they can understand. If you look at the state's own figures on program enrollment, they show that only 30 percent of the limited English proficient students in the state receive some form of primary language instruction. To indict all programs that fall under the heading of bilingual education and say the kids aren't succeeding because bilingual programs are failing, it just doesn't make sense when only 30 percent of the kids even get near primary language instruction to start with.

Q: What about those claims that bilingual education is not working? Are they valid?

A: It takes time to become proficient in a second language. Research shows that five to seven years is the generally accepted amount of time for someone to become proficient. When we say proficient, we're talking about learning English to the point where you can perform at the same level as your English language peers. It doesn't happen overnight. How proficient did you become in two or three years of studying foreign language in high school? Could you attend a lecture about chemistry in Spanish and want your high school career to be judged on that?

Q: You stand to lose a lot if the initiative passes. If there's no bilingual programs, you don't have a job. That gives you more than enough reason to lobby so strongly against this, right?

A: A lot of people will often say that bilingual education is just a jobs program. I don't know of one bilingual educator in this state who would be without a job today if bilingual education were totally eliminated. Bilingual teachers can teach in English too. They teach English language development every day and California has an incredible shortage of teachers right now, especially with class-size reduction.

Q: Will the anti-immigration feeling carry the initiative through in your mind?

A: The people behind this initiative have deep pockets. I've seen the paid people out there collecting signatures. It's likely they'll collect all they need. It's likely it will get on the ballot. And it's possible it's going to pass because of the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in this state and the misunderstandings of what bilingual education is. If it passes, I hope there's some kind of constitutional challenge to it by one of the advocacy organizations.