Modesto Bee

Friday, May 1, 1998

Prop. 227 Threatens Successful Program
By PATRICK GIBLIN, McClatchy Newspapers

TURLOCK -- Nine-year-old Jessica Schlitz speaks fluent English and Spanish like most of her fourth-grade classmates at Osborn Elementary School.

Yet the highly successful bilingual program that taught her two languages, called two-way immersion studies, could be deemed illegal if Proposition 227 passes in June.

The Osborn program started five years ago with Jessica's kindergarten class. Now the program is so popular among both Spanish- and English-speaking parents that about half the students at Osborn are enrolled in it.

"It is impressive to watch your child start out speaking one language and end up being totally fluent and literate in two," said Jessica's mother, Robin Schlitz. "We've had high school students come into our daughter's classroom and learn Spanish from the children."

Students are taught mainly in Spanish when they enter kindergarten. English is gradually introduced as the children move through the grades. Fourth-graders now receive 40 percent of their lessons in English.

The theory is that children in the program -- who speak native English, like Jessica -- will continue learning English from their parents and the English-speaking society that surrounds them every day. Spanish-speaking children, on the other hand, don't hear their language as often and need to be taught in their native tongue in order to continue learning.

To keep the students from falling behind their peers, the lessons are exactly the same as taught in English-only classes. Even the books are the same, except for the language.

Top grades for program
So far, the program has a high success rate.

A group of parents from Salinas, planning to start a similar program next year, toured the school Wednesday and spoke to teachers and students. Some of the parents asked questions in both languages of Hispanic and non-Hispanic children. They were surprised to get answers in fluent Spanish and English from both groups.

"I am so excited," said Lupe Garza, one of the Salinas parents. "I can't wait until my child starts kindergarten in the program next year."

The Salinas parents were pleased to learn that students who went through similar programs in other schools not only did well in grade school but excelled in high school. That's according to a report published last year by Virginia Collier, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

The program is proof that bilingual education can be successful in California, said Mary McCandless, administrative intern at Osborn.

Not limited to Spanish
More than 60 California schools, including Rio Altura in Riverbank, use the two-way immersion program for bilingual instruction. The method isn't limited to Spanish and English. A school in San Francisco teaches Chinese.

"You have to have qualified teachers and a community willing to support it," said McCandless said. "The parents here are very much in favor of bilingual education because their children are doing so well."

Bilingual education is generally seen as a failure by many in California because most schools do not have programs like the one at Osborn, said Blair Cohn, program manager at the California Elementary Education Association, which distributed Collier's report.

Approximately 70 percent of the 1.4 million California schoolchildren who don't speak English at home are given little or no bilingual instruction at school. Yet the classes they take are often labeled bilingual.

"They may not be given enough English work or lessons aren't explained to them in a way they can understand," said Cohn. "That's what gives bilingual education a bad name."

Prop. 227, if approved, would limit bilingual education to one year of intensive study for non-English speaking students. After that, all classes would be taught in English.

"There are legalities involved and we will follow the law," said McCandless. "We are actively working on the issues and aren't sure what will happen if 227 passes."

That frustrates parents at Osborn.

"The scary part of 227 is it's a threat to our program," said Schlitz. "It's a bilingual program that works and we want to see it continue."