San Diego Union-Tribune
Sunday, December 21, 1997
THE BILINGUAL DEBATE
Two Schools of Thought
Latinos divided over merits of dual-language instruction.
By Ed Mendel, Staff Writer
It's only about 100 miles between the two schools on Interstate 5. But
when it comes to bilingual education, they are worlds apart.
Taft Elementary School in Santa Ana is the home of Gloria Matta Tuchman,
a first-grade teacher. She and businessman Ron Unz are co-leaders of an
initiative that seeks to replace bilingual education with a one-year program,
taught predominantly in English, that Taft has used for years.
Los Altos Elementary School on Otay Mesa is the home of Edward "Lalo"
Aceves, a principal. He scrapped an English-immersion program four years
ago, replacing it with a bilingual program that teaches children in their
native languages for four to seven years as they learn English.
The two educators and their schools illustrate how Latinos, who once pushed
for bilingual education as a civil right, are now deeply divided over the
question of whether young students who speak little or no English should
be taught for years in Spanish or be prodded to learn English quickly.
"It's nothing new," Tuchman said of her method. "It isn't
revolutionary. It isn't magic. It's just good sense and good teaching."
The teachers at Taft use English, backed by pictures and gestures, while
teaching young students whose skills in English are limited. Teachers sometimes
use a few words in the students' native language. The students are usually
transferred to regular mainstream classes after a year.
In bilingual education, students are taught in their native language and
gradually introduced to English. They often remain in bilingual education
four to seven years before all of their classes are presented in English.
"It works," said Aceves. "The kids are confident about the
work. They are proud of their heritage. We are not trying to fragment our
society. We are trying to build this country."
While talking about the educational merit of their methods, Tuchman and
Aceves can both cite academic research and anecdotes about the successes
of individual students. But the lack of conclusive evidence makes the debate
over bilingual education a difficult one.
Latinos may be only about 15 percent of the voters who will decide the
fate of the initiative, headed for the ballot in June. Yet the direct impact
of bilingual education falls mainly on Latinos, whose mass migration has
changed the face of California.
Latinos moved past whites this year to become the largest racial group
in California's public schools -- about 2.2 million, or nearly 40 percent
of the 5.6 million students in kindergarten through high school.
Half of the Latino students speak little or no English and are classified,
in the language of the state bureaucracy, as limited English proficient.
As a result, Latinos are about 80 percent of the 1.4 million California
students who are eligible for bilingual education.
California schools have to deal with more than just Spanish-speaking
children. The San Diego Unified School District, for instance, must deal
with students who speak about 50 different languages. But the vast majority
of limited-English students are those who speak Spanish.
Tale of two schools
Reaction to the Latino migration went in dramatically different directions
at Taft Elementary, located in the heart of conservative Orange County,
and Los Altos Elementary, where Tijuana's seaside bull ring can be seen
from the schoolyard.
"They kept saying, `They are coming, they are coming,' " recalled
Taft's Tuchman. "I said, `They are already here, and we better have
something in place before the state education department comes down here
and tells us what to do.' "
A former principal at Taft wanted to switch from the one-year English program,
known as sheltered immersion, to bilingual education in 1985. Tuchman opposed
the change and was reprimanded for resisting implementation of the new
policy, which ended up being dropped after parents protested.
Tuchman moved on from the victory at her school. As a member of the board
of the nearby Tustin Unified School District, she helped get a federal
grant for an alternative to bilingual education in 1987, when the district
had only 200 children with limited English skills.
Now the Tustin district has more than 4,000 children with limited English
skills. All of them go through sheltered immersion programs such as the
ones Tuchman and her colleagues use at Taft in the Santa Ana Unified School
Tuchman took her fight against bilingual education to Sacramento in 1987,
testifying against the renewal of the state bilingual education law.
"I personally feel that bilingual education has failed a whole generation
of Hispanic children, not only in this state but in the whole country,"
said Tuchman, who ran unsuccessfully for state superintendent of public
instruction in 1994.
"They are not learning English. They are not staying in school. They
are not graduating from high school."
But while Taft and Tustin were going one way, most of the public schools
in California have been going the other. After Aceves came to Los Altos,
he installed a bilingual education program in 1993 to replace what he says
was a failed English immersion plan modeled after a program in Texas.
Just as Tuchman has helped spread English immersion, Aceves has done the
same for bilingual education. He helped set up bilingual programs at three
other schools in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, where he has
worked for 22 years.
"Our program is to build biliteracy," said Aceves, who recently
received a doctorate from SDSU in bilingual education. "That is our
Los Altos is not yet teaching Spanish or another second language to
students who already speak English and make up about 55 percent of the
500-member student body. But that could be on the way.
The Chula Vista district board not only backs bilingual education, but
passed a resolution in October supporting "multiliteracy" and
the teaching of a second language to children who speak English.
Chula Vista, the largest elementary district in the state with 21,400
students, has been undergoing a rapid transformation. Two-thirds of the
students are minorities, and a third of them speak limited English.
When Aceves arrived at Los Altos, all of the teachers were white. Now many
of the 31 teachers are minorities and nearly half of the total staff provide
instruction in Spanish. As Latinos take jobs once held by whites, Aceves
bluntly acknowledged that there may be some underground resentment among
"If I were to leave tomorrow, they would probably burn a cross in
front of the school," he joked.
Learning in two languages
Step inside the Los Altos school, located on a low hill in San Diego
overlooking Tijuana, and you find what Aceves calls a "late-exit
transitional" bilingual education program.
Students with limited English, nearly half of the total enrollment, receive
most of their instruction from teachers who speak Spanish and use Spanish
But starting in kindergarten, when they mix with English-speaking children,
the students are gradually taught in English for part of the day.
By the fourth grade, a student's daily rotation among subjects includes
1 1/2 to two hours of instruction in English. It usually takes four to
seven years before students are receiving all of their instruction in English.
After kindergarten, students are tested, and their parents are asked to
decide whether the child should take full or modified bilingual programs
or English only.
Like a doctor advising a patient, Aceves said, the school recommends to
parents that their children take the bilingual program. He said only four
or five a year opt for English only.
Aceves is a critic of the sheltered immersion programs. Such programs would
be imposed on all students by the initiative -- unless parents can convince
school officials there is the need for a waiver for their child.
He said young students who are taught to speak English can quickly seem
to become fluent, but have trouble thinking in their new language later
on. He said the problem often begins to appear at about the third grade.
"Kids can fool you," said Aceves. "But when you start getting
into the academics, it's more difficult to think at a second level."
When Los Altos experimented with English immersion programs from 1991 to
1993, reading test scores showed no improvement and math scores dropped
But since the bilingual program began in 1993, reading and math scores
at Los Altos have improved, particularly for students taking a test in
Spanish known as the Aprenda.
The man who was the district assistant superintendent for instruction when
Los Altos switched back to bilingual education said there were several
reasons for the change.
"I think it's fair to say that the largest push came from a compliance
mandate from the state," said Lowell Billings, now the district business
manager. "I am also aware there were concerns about not the immediate
impact, but the long-term impact of cognitive disorders and delays."
Aceves said a teacher recently remarked that a young student named Frankie
had quickly become fluent in English, perhaps making him ready to leave
the bilingual program. Aceves said the youth needed more time.
"Tuchman may have a bunch of Frankies, who are sharp kids," said
Aceves. "They will talk to you in either language."
Arguments for immersion
Tuchman rolled her eyes and smiled when asked if there was evidence
that students at Taft, after emerging from the immersion program, began
to encounter learning difficulties around the third grade.
"We monitor their progress," said Tuchman. "We get the parents
involved. I don't see that their minds are declining."
The Taft principal, Bill Hart, said he sees no evidence that problems often
begin developing in subsequent grades. But if they do, he said, the school
can offer support in the native language after students leave the immersion
Hart does not take sides in the dispute over bilingual education. In his
view, the key is dedicated teachers, who can make either immersion or bilingual
education work if they strongly believe in it.
"All this stuff is highly emotional," said Hart. "All you
really is opinion. There are no strong numbers pointing to one being better
than the other."
Taft has some of the top test scores in its district, and at times a
waiting list of parents who want to enroll their children. Hart gives all
the credit to a skillful group of teachers in the school with 1,200
students, about 75 percent Latino.
Tuchman is part of a close-knit group of teachers who have been at Taft
for years. The teachers not only rejected bilingual education -- and received
a state waiver to embark on the English immersion program -- but also the
"whole language" method of teaching reading pushed by the state
a decade ago.
Hart said the teachers concluded after a few months that the use of
interesting stories to capture the attention of students was not enough.
The teachers asked to switch back to phonics-based instruction and sounding
Even the Taft school building bears the stamp of the strong-willed
teachers. At their request, the interior of the building is a large open
space without the traditional walls between class areas.
Tuchman is the smoothly practiced professional as she works with a class
of about 15 students, smartly dressed in the school uniform of dark blue
pants and skirts and white shirts and blouses.
Pointing to words and pictures on the wall, Tuchman moves through a series
of drills on basic things: the days of the week, months of the year, and
the four seasons. She gets students to say the words by constantly asking
questions, usually of the whole class, but sometimes of individuals.
In one drill, she goes through the coins commonly found in pocket change
-- penny, nickel, dime and quarter -- weaving in the words, the numbers
and little historical lessons about the presidents depicted on each of
the four coins.
There is a remarkable moment when the first-graders, who received training
in English in kindergarten, seem to be far enough along to grasp a pun
or word play based on their new language.
Tuchman points to a drawing and asks: "Do you know what fog is?"
"Like a frog," a youngster wisecracks, drawing a laugh from his
classmates. Tuchman smiles and explains, "Clouds come down and then
you can't see too good."
As with their preferred methods of teaching, Tuchman and Aceves have
very different ways of handling the political question of what impact bilingual
education has on society. Much of the early opposition to bilingual education
warned that the United States would become another Canada, a divided society
speaking two different languages.
In fact, a group that wants to preserve a one-language culture, English
First, says the initiative is already giving new momentum to legislation
in Congress that would repeal federal bilingual education laws.
"I'm hearing from more congressmen that we have to do something about
bilingual education," said Jim Boulet Jr., English First executive
director. "So I am cautiously optimistic that we might be able to
kill this program."
Tuchman politely declines to be drawn into a discussion about the politics
of bilingual education. In her view, bilingual education hurts Latino students
by keeping them segregated from other students for years, contributing
to low test scores and high dropout rates -- and, in the end, dimming their
chances of advancement in life.
Her own experience and recent polls tell her that most Latino parents want
their children to be taught English quickly. A statewide Field Poll found
that the initiative is supported by 69 percent of all voters and 66 percent
"I see it as an English literacy issue -- not as a racial issue, not
assimilation issue, not as a diversity issue," said Tuchman.
With Aceves, a discussion of bilingual education is steeped in social
issues and ethnic consciousness. He said activists in the 1960s used to
refer to Latinos like Tuchman, who made it into the middle-class mainstream
in Orange County, as "vendidos," people who sold out their culture.
"Basically, it boils down to a political hotbed," said Aceves.
"It's a very racial issue. People of the majority of the culture think
we should all speak English. I don't disagree. I think we should all be
Aceves feels the strong pull of Mexico. Sometimes he goes up on the roof
of the school to retrieve a ball from the playground. He can see Tijuana
and the high-rises of downtown San Diego, two cities so near yet so far
"I'm sitting here and you can see Tijuana, and we can't even talk
to them," said Aceves.
At Taft in Santa Ana, the veteran principal knows that Latino parents,
who must give permission for their children to be placed in the immersion
program, have a strong attachment to their culture and ethnic identity.
But his prescription is different from the one issued by Aceves.
"I tell them, `If you work at home on language and customs of the
old country and let us teach in English, we will develop a student who
is fluent in both arenas,' " Hart said. "I have never yet had
a parent turn me down."