Los Angeles Times

Saturday, May 30, 1998

Ignorance Is Behind This Proposition

I am one of 5,500 bilingual teachers who work for the Los Angeles Unified School District. For the past 19 years, I have taught students whose first language is not English. Almost 100% of these students are, by my standards, poor. I've taught kindergarten through fifth grade, gifted and remedial students.      While I know that many of our immigrant students in LAUSD are successfully progressing through the system, I also know that some of them are not.
     Proposition 227 propagates the myth that there is no English instruction or learning taking place in bilingual classes. This is ludicrous.
     In LAUSD, we have something called a Master Plan for English Learners. This plan combines the goals of English learning and academic achievement for every non-English speaking student in the district. The plan includes instruction in the child's primary language. Experience and research have shown that the development of a child's first language sets a solid foundation for the learning of a second language. The Master Plan for English Learners is not based on politics; it is based on empirical research in the fields of linguistics and language acquisition. Yearly, LAUSD systematically redesignates 25,000 English-learners to mainstream English classrooms. This is roughly the same number of students the district graduates from high school.
     This year one of my second-grade students is struggling with learning. He lives in a converted garage with his parents and five brothers. His parents have a limited education. Because he is behind in school, he struggles with self-esteem. At this point, should I be concerned with his English language development or his overall academic progress or both?
     Outsiders to my profession might automatically see English learning as this student's primary need. I don't. The bilingual education that he is receiving in my classroom helps him to develop academically while learning English.
     If Ron Unz gets his way, this student would be allowed only a one-year course of "sheltered English immersion." During this year he would not be required to receive any other academic subjects. He then would be thrown into a regular English-only classroom. It is not hard to imagine what would happen to this child under these circumstances.
     I have a doctor friend of Colombian ancestry whose birth language is Spanish. He achieved a medical degree here in the U.S. and is a practicing pediatrician. He still doesn't speak English perfectly and he definitely writes better in Spanish. But the major factor in his success was the strong academic background that he brought when he came to this country as a teenager. His story is not unique; many limited-English speaking immigrants, who have strong academic backgrounds or professional training do just fine in our job market.
     Well-designed bilingual programs like ours in Los Angeles do just this: They combine the goal of academic achievement with the objective of learning English. Four teachers at my school are products of bilingual education. They are evidence of the effectiveness of the bilingual program.
     Proposition 227's plan of a one-year "crash course" of "sheltered English immersion" for English learners is based on ignorance of linguistics, ignorance of second-language acquisition research and, most important, ignorance of what actually takes place in a classroom of English-learning students.
     There are shortcomings in public education in general, but these same critics don't dare call for its elimination.
John Espinoza teaches at Malabar Elementary School.