San Diego Union-Tribune

Thursday, May 21, 1998

S.D. Schools Develop Own Reform Plan
Students would be assessed on their fluency in English
By MAUREN MAGEE, Staff Writer

Forget about the ballot measure that seeks to virtually outlaw bilingual education. The San Diego Unified School District is poised to launch a groundbreaking program for students who speak limited English -- with or without Proposition 227.

Under a plan announced yesterday, San Diego schools would require annual fluency assessments for its 39,000 students who speak limited English. And for the first time, graduating seniors would be required to prove they can read, write, speak and comprehend English before earning a diploma.

"We invest a lot of money into bilingual education. Finally, we will be able to see if it is working, we will be able to see if we are getting a return on our investment," said school trustee Edward Lopez.

The school board will vote on the ambitious reform package today. If approved, as expected, the plan will begin with the graduating class of 2001.

Shepherded by U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin, who will take over the superintendency in July, the bilingual education reform policy is the first substantial issue taken on by the next schools chief.

"Bilingualism is not something to shy away from, it's something to embrace, to capitalize on," Bersin said. "We want our students to speak more than one language. But we want them all to read, write and speak English when they leave our schools."

The intent of the plan is to move students who speak little or no English into English-taught courses quickly and effectively. Last year, fewer than 6 percent of the district's limited-English students were redesignated as English fluent, down slightly from the statewide average of roughly 7 percent.

In the 1995-96 school year, 1,759 city schools students, or 4.9 percent, became fluent and literate in English.

San Diego's proposal comes just weeks before voters will consider Republican Ron Unz's Proposition 227, which would put children who can't speak English into immersion programs taught overwhelmingly in English for one academic year. After that, students would be put into mainstream, English-taught courses.

Earlier this year, the school board voted to oppose the measure. Bersin called the initiative a "shortsighted, one-size-fits-all" solution to a complicated problem.

Proposition 227 has sparked a bitter public debate over bilingual education. President Clinton has publicly opposed the Unz initiative, while Gov. Pete Wilson this week endorsed it.

"We don't know what will happen if the Unz measure passes. It may get tied up in the courts," said Lopez, who is also an attorney. "We just want to have this in place either way."

Even if voters pass Proposition 227 on June 2, the district's proposed accountability system and graduation requirements could legally move forward, officials said. If the measure is challenged in court, San Diego could implement its new plan while other districts may have to wait for a legal ruling.

Yesterday's announcement was made at the Language Academy, a College Area magnet school that offers dual-immersion programs that teach students English, French and Spanish.

Bersin briefly spoke in Spanish to a crowd of bilingual students, praising their linguistic skills and interest in public education. One student piped in with a surprise question: "Do you, like, know how many students don't speak English, or whatever?"

The answer: 39,000 pupils, or about a third of the district's students, underscoring the need for reform in bilingual education in San Diego.

For years, taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars teaching schoolchildren English. But the loosely regulated bilingual education system does not monitor the effectiveness of programs locally or statewide.

In most California high schools, fluency in English is not even a requirement for graduation.

"If we had done this years ago, we would be in a lot better shape," said Tim Allen, who manages the district's bilingual education programs.

Under the proposal, bilingual education would be scrutinized like never before. In addition to graduation requirements, the district's new policy would establish academic performance bench marks at the third-, fifth-, eighth-and 10th-grade levels to make sure students are progressing toward English fluency.

"We have been calling out for higher standards all year. We want to make sure we are asking the same thing of all of our students," said Superintendent Bertha Pendleton, who will retire next month. "We have a diverse district; we want to demand academic excellence from all of our students."

Similar to the district's controversial accountability program that last year publicly labeled 20 campuses the worst-performing in the system, schools that fail to make students fluent in English could face consequences. Schools that are successful in teaching students to become literate in English may be rewarded with teaching resources or funding, Bersin said.

Under the existing system, schools get extra money for every student designated limited-English. But there is no fiscal incentive for moving students into English-taught courses. And, there are no penalties for failing to declare students fluent in English.

The school board will consider the concept of reform today, but the details have yet to be worked out.

For example, how would schools determine whether students can read, write, speak and comprehend English? How would 39,000 students get annual assessments to determine whether they are making progress toward becoming fluent in English?

If the proposal passes, a school board-appointed panel during the summer break would develop specific ways to implement the reform plan.

Although Bersin's appointment to the superintendency was opposed by some in the Latino community, his bilingual education package was developed with the help of several of the region's leading Latino educators.

Among those on Bersin's bilingual education panel, which began its work in April, are Rosalia Salinas of the San Diego County Office of Education; Augustine Gallego, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District; and Alberto Ochoa of the Mexican-American Advisory Committee.