Contra Costa Times

Sunday, May 24, 1998

Dual-Immersion Programs Unintended Targets of Prop. 227
By PAM KING, Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY -- In class, the children are Enrique, Alejandro and Mateo. At home, they are Henry, Alexander and Matthew.

They spend every day in a kindergarten classroom at Columbus Elementary School, where their teacher speaks Spanish almost exclusively, and two-thirds of their classmates do, too. Their parents signed them up for this special program, which is so popular that two out of every three applicants for next year will be turned away.

Theirs is a two-way or dual immersion class -- one of a handful in the Bay Area. The two-way model takes an equal number of English- and foreign language-speaking kindergartners with the goal of developing a class of fully bilingual children by the time they leave elementary school after fifth grade.

Under Prop. 227, the ballot measure that proposes to teach all limited-English students only in one-year English immersion classrooms, these six-year two-way programs would be in jeopardy. Parents could use a prescribed waiver process to keep their children in two-way programs, but only if they met certain requirements, such as special educational needs.

These two-way programs are not the intended target of Prop. 227, because they are both relatively rare -- about 60 in California, and just over 200 nationwide -- and viewed as innovative enrichment programs. Prop. 227 proposes to do away with traditional bilingual education, in which teachers use their students' native language so that children do not fall behind academically while they are learning English. The prime criticism of bilingual education is that it does not move children quickly or efficiently enough toward English literacy.

In two-way programs, the emphasis is on the end result. The speed of second-language acquisition is not an issue, and the students are not expected to be truly fluent in a second language until fourth grade. Not only do children learn language formally, in the classroom setting, but they also learn "playground" language, because they are socializing with their classmates.

"I am very worried about the future of the program," said Maria Luisa Garcia, a Spanish-speaking Columbus parent whose daughter Jessica is in the two-way immersion kindergarten. "After nine months in school, she speaks much more English than my older daughter did when she was in kindergarten. This program is better (than traditional bilingual education). I know (Jessica) will not be left behind. She will have more opportunities to excel."

The federal government looks favorably on this model -- to the extent that many of the grants handed out in recent years under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act have included two-way immersion components. In the West County Unified School District, for example, Dover Elementary in San Pablo and Lincoln Elementary in Richmond will put Title VII funds to work in two-way immersion programs beginning in September. Among the Bay Area school districts sponsoring two-way programs are San Francisco (at six schools), San Jose, San Mateo and Napa.

In general, these programs start with almost all instruction in the foreign language -- usually Spanish -- in kindergarten and first grade. This immerses the English speakers in the foreign language and provides an academic foundation for the foreign-language speakers in their native language. In second and third grades, the academic subjects continue to be taught in Spanish, although more time is devoted to reading and writing in English. By fourth grade, instruction time is divided equally between English and Spanish -- for example, some teachers teach certain subjects in Spanish and others in English and then flip-flop on a weekly or monthly basis.

So when it's singing time in Greg Martin's kindergarten class at Columbus, you won't hear "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." Martin grabs his ukelele and counts down, "Uno, dos . . . uno, dos, tres hit it!"

To the tune of "Frère Jacques," the 20 children sing, "Buenos días, buenos días/¿Como estás? ¿Como estás?/Muy bien, gracias, muy bien, gracias/¿Y usted, y usted?"

"Everyone says kindergarten is the hardest year because you're laying the groundwork," said Martin, Columbus' first two-way immersion teacher. "Sometimes I feel like a cartoon character, I'm using so much pantomime. This is a pretty hands-on class."

Because Martin speaks almost exclusively in Spanish, he recognizes that his class is a greater challenge for the English-speaking children.

"It's very difficult for them -- very frustrating," he said. "This is not a class for everyone. The English-speaking kids are a very 'out-there' bunch. They cannot have attention problems -- those would be compounded in this environment."

Some children are making remarkable progress. Wendy Schnare, the only native English speaker among the girls in the class, clearly has a gift. She chatters in Spanish, rarely at a loss for a vocabulary word. While Martin sometimes reminds his English speakers to use Spanish, that's never an issue with Wendy.

"I think Henry understands a great deal of Spanish but speaks less," said Daniel Fuller, who was volunteering in his 5-year-old son's classroom one Wednesday morning. "I don't think he knew what he was getting into -- he just wanted to be in the same class as a couple of his friends. But he gets plenty of English stuff at home and he's not being harmed. Plus Greg (Martin) is such a great teacher."

Martin's class is not a model in one important respect -- it has 13 Spanish-speaking children and only seven English-speaking children. It is also unbalanced in gender, with 13 boys and seven girls. These situations were the result of parents' uncertainties about the first-year program, and the need to establish a track record.

The 1998-1999 kindergarten class will be more evenly split, said Alison Jones, Columbus' Title VII coordinator. As of the end of April, 58 families had applied for the 20 spots.

Such labor pains are common.

"It wasn't easy to get our program off the ground," said David Brown, superintendent of the Napa Valley Unified School District, which launched its first two-way immersion program three years ago. "It was tough to recruit English-speaking children, and we had to go outside the Westwood (Elementary School) community (in Napa). But now we have a waiting list at Westwood, and we had enough demand to start a second program (at McPherson Elementary, also in Napa)."

Brown attributes the success of Napa Valley's programs to a combination of factors -- only one of which is tangible. These two-way immersion programs boast of strong standardized test results -- both for the English speakers and the English learners.

In 1995, Kathryn Lindholm of San Jose State reported that in her study of two-way immersion programs at three schools, English speakers in the 7th grade scored in the 97th percentile in English reading and math, and the Spanish speakers scored in the 86th percentile in English reading and math. On standardized tests in Spanish, the English speakers scored in the 89th percentile in reading and in the 97th percentile in math, and the Spanish speakers scored in the 60th percentile in reading and 56th percentile in math.

A long-term study by Virginia Collier, a researcher and professor in Virginia, identified two-way immersion as the best way to teach a second language to children. Collier said that students maintained grade-level skills in their first language, achieved average grade-level skills in their second language after 4-5 years, and sustained their achievement throughout high school.

Research results are skewed to a certain extent by the background of children who enroll in two-way immersion programs. Many of the programs can be selective, because there are waiting lists; the simple fact that these programs require parents to apply on behalf of their children suggests a level of involvement and interest that may exceed the average parent's.

While parents are attracted by the impressive test scores, Brown said, they also like "the feel" of the program: "To hear your 6-year-old speaking Spanish and to know that he's going to be fluent not only conversationally, but also academically . . . that's pretty powerful."

Mary Jacobs, whose son Daniel is in the two-way immersion kindergarten at Columbus Elementary, says the classroom environment is "very enriching."

"Given that we live in California, I think this makes a lot of sense," she said. "It's a hands-on, multi-sensory class, and I think that's good language teaching. It's intense and a lot of listening, but I'm very pleased. Daniel had a pretty rich background coming into kindergarten, and he was ready."

Pam King covers education and Proposition 227. You can reach her at 925-977-8406 or P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek 94596.