San Diego Union-Tribune
Monday, April 20, 1998
Hasten the Transition
A better path to English-only classes
Compared with some other school districts, San Diego Unified has been
relatively successful in helping Limited English Proficient (LEP) students
make the transition into regular classrooms. But superintendent-designate
Alan Bersin and board trustee Ed Lopez are appropriately looking to make
the district's bilingual education program more effective.
Bersin and Lopez are spearheading a project to hasten the transition of
LEP students, who account for 28 percent of the district's 137,000 enrollment,
into English-only classes. The process for achieving that goal is in the
formative stages. In mid-May, the school board will select a committee,
composed of educators and community members, to scrutinize the district's
program and examine other successful programs. The board will also establish
a target date for the panel's recommendations.
Timing is crucial because on June 2, voters are likely to approve a statewide
ballot initiative that would drastically change the bilingual-education
landscape in California. Polls show strong support for a proposal by Silicon
Valley businessman Ron Unz that would essentially mandate that school districts
place students who do not speak English into "sheltered English immersion"
If this top-down dictate is approved by voters, our guess is the matter
will go straight to the courts to determine its constitutionality. And
if previous appeals are any guide, this could take months to resolve. Meantime,
districts will be operating their programs under the more flexible guidelines
called for by the state Board of Education.
That's why San Diego Unified is wise to have a plan in place that will
enhance the district's ability to help students with language problems
learn to communicate more effectively in English.
It is encouraging that Bersin, who is fluent in Spanish, is taking the
lead on this vital issue, because it underscores a commitment to close
the achievement gap between Hispanic students and their Anglo counterparts.
By making this his first initiative, Bersin could help blunt the criticism
he received from some Hispanic leaders when he was appointed to the job.
Despite Bersin's reservations about some aspects of bilingual education,
he appears determined to take what the district is doing right and then
strengthen its program. This more measured approach makes far more sense
than the one-size-fits-all approach that Unz is proposing.
Bersin wants the school board to give principals a variety of bilingual
strategies and then allow schools to select the ones that best suit the
needs of their students. That would be a welcome change from the traditional
process by which lengthy reports are prepared by staffers, revised by the
board and then sent to schools to gather dust.
San Diego Unified should have specific standards against which to measure
a student's English proficiency. Furthermore, all high school graduates
should be fluent in English before they are granted diplomas.
Bersin believes these scholastic objectives can be achieved without Sacramento
calling the shots. He's right.