Los Angeles Times

Monday, May 25, 1998

A Boomtown of Bilingual Education
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writer

MIAMI--While California debates whether to stop teaching schoolchildren in two languages, the school system in this city at the crossroads of the Americas is expanding bilingual education under the argument that students will need to speak, read and write in English and Spanish when they reach the business world.
      Here in Miami, there was little protest and much praise when the school board this year endorsed a plan to increase bilingual teaching for all students--not just those with limited English skills--from kindergarten through 12th grade.
      The decision was seen as natural for a metropolis where the top-rated television station broadcasts in Spanish, the top-ranked newspaper publishes a separate Spanish daily edition, many top civic leaders speak effortless Spanish and Latinos have become the majority.
      Other school districts nationwide have come to similar conclusions, as "two-way" bilingual programs--which immerse students in English and another language--have grown in popularity. There are at least 200 such programs in 20 states, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. They are in cities such as New York, Chicago, Houston and San Jose.
      Their growth appears to be limited only by demographics (mixing students who speak different languages is ideal), by the supply of bilingual teachers (often scarce) and by money (always a concern).
      Donna Christian, the center's director, said the two-way approach has become popular in part because it avoids the "stigma," "negative press" and "controversy" that often follow other forms of bilingual education.

California May Move in Opposite Direction
      Nowhere is the controversy more intense than in California, where a vote on an anti-bilingual education initiative, Proposition 227, will take place June 2.       The initiative, ahead by a 63%-23% margin among likely voters in a new Los Angeles Times poll, would end most bilingual programs in California and give students with limited English skills about one year of special English classes before placing them in the mainstream.
      How California votes on the measure could have nationwide repercussions because the state has more students with limited English skills than any other: 1.4 million. About 30% of them are in formal bilingual programs, including some two-way programs. But the more common approach in California is "transitional" bilingual education, in which students often spend more time being taught in their native language than in English during their first school years.
      Educators in Miami, home to the first bilingual public school in the modern era, are baffled by the cultural and political firefight over bilingual education on the other side of the country.
      "We view it here differently than they do in California," said Miami school board member Perla Tabares Hantman. "We see it as a business opportunity for students."
      Noting that their region's trade with Latin America amounts to billions of dollars a year, business leaders say Miami cannot afford to do without bilingual education.
      "I don't give a hoot about the political aspects of it," said James F. Partridge, chief of Latin American and Caribbean operations for Visa International, a branch of the credit card company. "To me, that's a lot of garbage. I'm interested in the financial well-being of this community. We need bilingual people to survive."
      Partridge is so concerned about the issue that his office here gives remedial lessons in Spanish and Portuguese to dozens of employees whose weak bilingual skills don't allow them to communicate with clients in those languages.
      The pro-bilingual movement in the 340,000-student Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth-largest district, highlights several issues often overlooked in the Proposition 227 debate.
      In California, bilingual education is usually seen as a program just for students with limited English skills. But here, bilingual education is sold as a program for everyone.
      In California, fluency in English is the overriding priority. Here, no one denies that English is essential, but other languages--including Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian-Creole--are also deemed vital.
      In California, many people assume that the children of immigrants can learn their native language from family while studying only in English at school. Here, many people have concluded that native language skills erode without help from schools.
      Consider the story of Hilda Garcia, 26, born to Cuban parents and raised in Miami. She learned Spanish at home but attended English-only schools as a child. Now she works for a steamship line that does business with Panama, and she finds her Spanish sorely lacking.
      "I never was able to learn perfect Spanish. We all speak Spanglish," Garcia said, referring to a hybrid of Miami's two dominant languages. "I regret that very much. Our faxes, our e-mail, everything is in Spanish. I have to have three dictionaries next to me to make sure it all gets translated correctly."
      Hoping to give her 6-year-old son, Jonathan, a formal grounding in Spanish, Garcia has enrolled him in Coral Way Elementary School. The school on Cuban Memorial Boulevard in the Little Havana district lies just south of a shrine with a perpetual flame burning for those who died at the Bay of Pigs.
      All students spend three hours a day learning in English in one classroom and two hours in Spanish in another. Teachers boast of students who are exposed to Shakespeare and Cervantes by the time they leave for middle school. Even E.D. Hirsch, the renowned education conservative and advocate of "cultural literacy," has given the school his endorsement in a signed plaque that hangs in the principal's office.
      No distinctions are made among the newcomer from Nicaragua who has limited English ability, the young Haitian who speaks mainly English and Creole and the third-generation Cuban American who knows a bit of Spanish and a lot of English.
      About a third of the school's students start with limited English skills, officials say, but nearly all are close to fluency by third grade. On standardized tests, students score in the 71st percentile in math computation and 47th percentile in English reading comprehension--considered good marks for an urban area.
      Principal Migdania D. Vega said she has hosted legions of out-of-town educators, including a recent delegation from the Los Angeles Unified School District. What makes the difference, she said, is attitude. Bilingual education here is seen as "enrichment" rather than "remedial."
      Some research has found that two-way programs, also known as "dual immersion," are more effective than other kinds of bilingual or English-intensive teaching methods.
      The approach, Vega said, "needs a lot of support, a lot of commitment, a lot of belief in what you're doing."

Birthplace of the New Bilingualism
      Marjorie Figueroa has no doubts. The 7-year-old daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, a native Spanish speaker, is an archetypal bilingual success story for Miami civic leaders. She was writing an account of Mother's Day in class one morning in clear English.
      The confident second-grader looked up from her journal to tell a reporter that she speaks "English to my sister and brother, to my dad Spanish and English, and to my mother, Spanish, because she doesn't know English."
      It was at Coral Way Elementary in 1963 that bilingual education was reborn, a response to the influx of Spanish-speaking children after the communist takeover of Cuba. Teaching in two languages, common in other eras of American history, had fallen out of practice after the First World War amid a wave of nationalism and English-only sentiment.
      The school helped inspire the landmark federal Bilingual Education Act in 1968. In California, mandatory English-only education was repealed the previous year under then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.
      Despite the success at Coral Way Elementary, schools elsewhere in Miami kept teaching almost entirely in English. Most Cuban emigres didn't seem to mind, leaving Hilda Garcia's generation to learn the Spanish of the streets and the home rather than the Spanish of the business world or academia. Newcomers were given some classroom help in their native language, but for the most part, English was the rule.
      The new push for bilingual education is coming from the Miami business community. In California, by contrast, few businesses or business groups have spoken out against Proposition 227.
      A 1995 survey of businesses in Miami and surrounding Dade County found that more than half did at least 25% of their work in Spanish. What's more, 95% of the businesses surveyed agreed on the importance of a bilingual work force.       Another study by a University of Miami geographer found evidence that Dade County's Hispanic (the term preferred here over Latino) inhabitants who know English and Spanish earn more than those who know only English--perhaps as much as $3,000 a year more, on average.

Unz Initiative Puts Emphasis on English
      Ron K. Unz, the businessman who authored Proposition 227, says he supports bilingualism. But he asserts that bilingual education has failed to teach hundreds of thousands of California students the English they need to compete in colleges or the job market. He cites other research suggesting that Latino immigrants in bilingual programs failed to keep pace in earnings.
      "Fluency in Spanish may prove a significant advantage," Unz wrote in an opinion piece for The Times last October, "but lack of literacy in English represents a crippling, almost fatal disadvantage in our global economy."
      An Unz campaign spokeswoman said that the fine print of Proposition 227 would make two-way programs possible for students whose parents obtain waivers. But critics say the initiative would wipe them out.
      English-only advocates in Dade County, in years past quite vocal, seem for now a virtually silent minority.
      Enos Schera, a retired electrician, is a vice president of a group called Citizens of Dade United, which opposes bilingual education and illegal immigration. Schera said many people resent the emerging power of Spanish-speakers who have turned the county's demographics, culture and politics upside-down.
      English immersion, Schera said, is "the best method for anybody to learn a language. Not this bilingual business." He added: "They all have a mind-set around this town that everybody should be learning Spanish to link into the Latin American trade. I think that's deplorable. What if they [the students] choose not to become Spanish speakers?"
      But such views hold little influence here these days. A community task force earlier this year recommended several steps aimed at making all students bilingual. First on the list were about $2.3 million worth of proposals to, among other things, add dozens of bilingual and English-as-a-Second-Language teachers at all grade levels and start 10 new two-way bilingual programs in elementary schools. About 30 elementary schools now have such programs, out of 200 districtwide.
      Recommendations for ensuing years, which cost considerably more, include requiring three years of foreign-language study in high school and doubling the amount of Spanish language instruction in all elementary schools--to one hour a day from the current half hour minimum. The eventual goal is to make voluntary bilingual classes available to every student.
      The nine-member school board unanimously approved the plan in March during a spirited multilingual meeting--which included recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish and "Jingle Bells" in Latin--though it put off funding decisions until June. Several board members and school administrators now say they expect the first year's funding to pass easily.
      And in following years? "I'm going to go as far as I can take it," said Roger C. Cuevas, the Cuban-born school superintendent. "It's really all about economics. And the engine of economic development is education."