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" programs.

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.