Contra Costa Times

October 5, 1997

Bilingual Divide
After 25 years, no one agrees on what works best in the classroom
By MARIA E. CAMPOSECO, Times Staff Writer

CONCORD -- A sea of small brown faces clusters eagerly around their teacher as she displays a picture book with the colors named in bold text at the bottom of the page.

"What color is this?" Vicky Halliday asks her Cambridge Elementary kindergartners as she points at the book.

"It's pink," says one girl waving her right arm for attention.

"Es rosado," responds another in her native tongue.

That's the wrong answer, according to a Southern California group collecting signatures for an initiative to wipe out bilingual education next year. It would affect more than 400,000 California students, including nearly 3,000 in Contra Costa County and 7,000 in Alameda County.

Opponents of bilingual education say it is more effective to immerse children in English than to teach them in their native tongue and gradually incorporate English in bilingual classes.

Supporters counter that bilingual education lets students learn English while learning other subjects in their native language, thereby enabling them to keep up with their English-speaking peers.

Leading the charge against bilingual education is English for the Children. The group is spearheaded by Ron Unz, a 1994 gubernatorial candidate and Silicon Valley millionaire who believes such programs prevent students from learning English and hurts them academically.

Unz and his supporters go so far as to blame bilingual education for high drop-out rates among Hispanics -- the majority of bilingual education students -- but have no statistics to back their claim.

"When you look around and see something that really hurts so many children and the state, you want to do something about it," said Unz, who has put $150,000 of his own money into the campaign.

There is little organized opposition to the initiative, but the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund is one of its most vocal critics.

They say the measure would set back students who are not fluent in English several years by putting them in math, history and science classes they can't understand .

"The unintended message is: 'Academic excellence isn't important, we just want children to learn English, " said Joseph Jaramillo, an attorney with the legal defense fund. "There's going to be chaos in schools and it will result in higher drop-out rates because it puts kids even further behind."

English for the Children is gathering signatures -- and momentum -- to get the initiative on the June ballot. The group has collected more than the 430,000 signatures it needs and will turn them in to the state in November for verification.

The proposal got a boost last Sunday when Republicans endorsed it at the end of a three-day GOP convention in Anaheim. The vote came after vociferous debate between Republican leaders -- who do not want to alienate Hispanic voters -- and the rank and file who support the proposal.

Until that day, most Democratic and Republican legislators had backed off from formally endorsing the measure. Many fear a repeat of the divisive campaigns for propositions 187 and 209, which sought to eliminate social welfare for immigrants and end affirmative action, respectively.

"It is so difficult to separate the theory from the political rhetoric and the emotion," said Linda Rondeau, assistant director of curriculum and instruction for Mt. Diablo Unified, Contra Costa's largest district. "People have become polarized."

Even educators can't agree on what works best. Studies done on the subject often are contradictory, and most schools rarely track long-term student progress.

Some teachers support the concept, saying it makes students bilingual and gradually brings them into the mainstream classes.

"If I spoke to a (Spanish-speaking) child only in English, they'd be completely lost," said Terry Marie Fleischman, a bilingual kindergarten teacher and reading specialist at Cambridge Elementary. "It would be like trying to learn physics in Chinese when you speak only English."

In most bilingual programs, children get most of their lessons in their native tongue, with more English incorporated at every grade.

At Cambridge Elementary, 90 percent of a kindergartner's day is in Spanish and 10 percent in English. By first grade the ratio is 80 to 20, and between the third and fifth grades, a child should be fluent in both languages and caught up academically with his or her English-speaking peers.

The same concept applies to older children, though experts say they typically have a more difficult time learning a new language.

Parents of some Cambridge students say bilingual classes work for them.

"At first my 8-year-old only learned English, and it was hard because I couldn't help him with his schoolwork," Gricelda Zaragoza said in Spanish. Her son Noe is in Halliday's class.

"Now he and his brothers and sisters know both and they're doing well in school."

Soledad Ochoa said her 5-year-old Joanna is picking up both languages so quickly, she now teaches her parents English.

"We'll walk down the street and she'll point and say, 'Pajaro means bird,' " Ochoa said in her native tongue. "They need Spanish because we want to understand them too."

Last year, California schools received $319 million for children in limited-English proficiency programs. These include bilingual education as well as English as a second language and English tutoring. There are 1.4 million limited-English students in California; 410,000 of them are in bilingual education.

Increased immigration from Latin America, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe has brought many new students into California schools. The daunting challenge is to teach English not only to those who speak Spanish, but those who speak such languages as Mien, Tagalog, Punjabi and Farsi.

Often, when there are too few youngsters to fill a class, students remain in English-only classes and learn English in small groups with teachers who use gestures and pictures to communicate.

Throughout Contra Costa, children with limited English skills more than doubled in the past decade to 14,500 this year. Many are Hispanic and the children of new and illegal immigrants working as day laborers and farm workers.

"Many families have issues of simple survival beyond education, and we find we have to build up their primary language first," said Diane Burns, who works with bilingual students at Meadow Homes Elementary in Concord. "Those are the kids that are going to struggle with English."

But, after 25 years of bilingual education, opponents say too many kids still struggle with English.

"Bilingual education is an affront to Hispanics," said Fernando Vega, a Redwood City Democrat who once championed bilingual education and is now at the forefront of the initiative campaign.

Bilingual education has isolated children from the English language and tracks students into less challenging academic programs, said Vega, resulting in high drop-out rates for Hispanics.

"Some say to give it another chance and let's reform it," Vega said. "But what do we need? Another 20 years?"

Unz insists he's not using the initiative to position himself for another gubernatorial bid next year. He said he developed the initiative after Hispanic parents in the Los Angeles Unified School District boycotted to keep their children out of bilingual education classes earlier this year.

Under state law, parents must consent to have their children in bilingual classes, but Unz claims school districts often railroad families into them to collect state funding. Bilingual teachers can make up to $5,000 more a year.

"It provides a perverse motivation to not educate children in English," he said.

In the end, Unz hopes the measure would bring together Californians.

"If Anglos see that most Hispanics don't want bilingual education, they'll realize Latinos really don't want to isolate their children or keep them un-American," Unz said. "If this passes it will be tremendously unifying."

As the sparring continues, the youngsters at Cambridge Elementary will continue their lessons in two languages, surrounded by an American and a Mexican flag.