San Diego Union-Tribune

Thursday, October 1, 1998

2-Way Language Programs Under Attack
Bilingual goals imperiled amid global marketplace.
By DANA WILKIE, Copley News Service

Even before her children were of school age, Lucy Haines knew she would put them in only one class at Valley Center Primary School: the one where Alysse, Alison and Michael would learn in English and in Spanish.

Alysse is now 11 and the twins are 9, and Haines expects that they will continue this bilingual training, which has so far "worked like a dream," right through high school.

But one of America's most fascinating public-education perks -- teaching children in two languages so they become literate in both -- is under attack in California and the nation's Capitol.

A bill in Congress would eventually take federal money away from all classes in this country that teach kids to speak, read and write in English and a second language, be it Spanish, Cantonese or French.

In California, the same kinds of courses are being complicated by voter-passed Proposition 227. Both jeopardize so-called "two-way language immersion" programs, a way to give schoolchildren the advantage of bilingualism when it comes time to compete in the global job market.

"People are so frantic figuring out what to do and worrying about the kids," says Donna Christian, president of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington, D.C., group studying the programs. "It's a tragedy, because it deprives these students of an opportunity to become proficient in more than one language."

Parents must make a years-long commitment to such classes. Alysse, for instance, started kindergarten in a class where half the students spoke English and half spoke Spanish. At first, she learned all her subjects almost entirely in Spanish. English was introduced gradually so that, by fourth grade, Alysse was learning half her subjects in English and half in Spanish.

While the prospect of putting English-speaking children in Spanish-speaking classes may sound risky, Christian's studies show that at an early age children pick up the new language quickly and in their subjects do as well as, and eventually better than, children taught only in English.

"I think many parents see that the global marketplace will require that those who get ahead will be bilingual," says Haines, who directs special projects for the Valley Center Union School District in north San Diego County.

"They understand the value of their children having these skills when they become adults."

A bill by Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Windsor, would end federal money for bilingual programs after a child has been in a bilingual class three years. Between June 1996 and June 1997, more than 250 California school districts split $48 million of this money to help pay for bilingual programs, including two-way classes. On average, that was 14 percent of what all bilingual classes cost.

The House passed Riggs' bill last month. It is doubtful that the Senate will vote on it before adjourning for the year, and Riggs is retiring from Congress. But Republican leaders expect to push similar legislation when they renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act next year.

Proposition 227, passed by 61 percent of California voters in June, virtually banned bilingual programs in California's public schools. It also requires parents to obtain yearly waivers allowing their children to stay in two-way classes. And, for one month of every school year, children in these programs must be in classes taught only in English.

This means that a pupil who spent three years learning mostly in Japanese will now start third grade by losing a month of Japanese instruction in subjects such as mathematics and science. He may find it difficult returning to Japanese classes in the second month without the building blocks from the first, as might his Japanese-speaking counterpart. Children 10 or older can be exempted from the new law.

In short, educators say, the requirement intrudes on the program's continuity and may thwart its goal.

"It is going to put them behind academically," says Haines, who runs these programs for one-third of Valley Center's 2,700 students. "In those years when you're building a foundation, you take out a portion of that experience where you're learning to read, you're just moving things backward."

Ron Unz, the wealthy Palo Alto businessman and one-time California gubernatorial candidate who wrote Proposition 227, concedes that his measure "obviously presents a little difficulty" for the two-way classes but says "it certainly doesn't eliminate these programs."

"Parents ought to have an opportunity to see how their children do in a program that's teaching them English in the first 30 days of the school year," Unz says. "It would be unfortunate if (Proposition 227) had a negative impact, but we are talking only about a small fraction of the school."

At least two schools in Orange County won state permission to become "alternative" schools. This permits them to run the two-way classes without restrictions.

There are six such courses in San Diego County schools -- four at Valley Center, one at Escondido's Orange Glen High School and one at San Diego's Washington Elementary School. California has nearly 100 programs, and there are more than 100 others across the country.

Judy Lambert, who directs the bilingual education division of the California Department of Education, recently has been fielding calls from parents worried that the programs will be lost or compromised. She says other schools may now hesitate before creating such classes -- at a time when parents are increasingly interested in giving children the advantage of bilingualism.

"I had one man call whose son is in a Portuguese program," Lambert says. "He said, 'My son can talk to people in Portuguese, and it's an opportunity he would not have had otherwise.' "