San Diego Union-Tribune
Monday, March 9, 1998
The Bilingual Battle: Prop 227 Would End Such Classes
in Public Schools
By LILLIAN SALAZAR LEOPOLD, Staff Writer
Ayano Morozumi doesn't know it, but she and nearly 1.4 million students
like her across the state are on a battlefield, where lines have been drawn
over how they are taught.
At issue is a two-hour class she and other students attend three times
a week at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, where they learn English
with students who speak Spanish and Thai.
The class is called English as a Second Language (ESL) and, in June, Californians
will vote on whether to end it, along with the state's other bilingual
If Proposition 227 passes -- and polls show the state's voters leaning
that way -- classes like Ayano's would be replaced by a far more limited
English-language program, called "sheltered English immersion."
Non-English-speaking students would no longer be taught in their native
languages or attend ESL classes for years, as Ayano and her friends have
done. They would be taught mainly in English for a year, then moved into
The idea is to speed students' conversion to English and to change a bilingual
education system that even its supporters admit is flawed.
But the English for the Children Initiative would have other consequences,
- It would shut down highly praised programs in which English-speaking
children are taught in other languages. One casualty, for example, would
be the programs at San Diego Unified's Emerson-Bandini and Longfellow elementary
schools, where English-speaking students are taught in Spanish alongside
- It would require San Diego County's more than 97,000 schoolchildren,
who speak 54 languages, to adapt to a one-size-fits-all teaching program.
Schools in the avocado country of North County, the urban core of San Diego,
the suburbs of East County and the border communities of South Bay would
no longer be free to tailor bilingual programs to their populations.
With communities that diverse, bilingual instruction in the county's
43 school districts is given in a variety of ways, from students being
pulled out of class an hour each day to learn English, to students taking
most of their courses in their native languages. The goal in all cases
is for students to master English while learning their core subjects.
San Diego Unified, by far the largest district in the county, provides
dozens of bilingual programs. Spanish-speaking students learn in Spanish
and attend ESL classes. English-speaking students learn Spanish and French
at its Language Academy. Asian students learn social studies and math in
a variety of Asian languages.
The district also relies heavily on aides who speak such languages as Afanoromo,
Farsi, Ibo, Romanian, Somalian and Urdu to serve as translators for the
students. However, the largest group of non-English-speaking students in
the district, as well as the state, speaks Spanish.
Other districts, such as the Chula Vista and San Ysidro elementary districts,
offer native-language instruction, while the Sweetwater Union High School
District teaches students in groups using English-speaking teachers and
Supporters of the initiative acknowledge their proposal would trigger radical
changes. But they say that is exactly what is needed for an educational
program they contend fails non-English-speakers, makes them fall behind
their English-speaking peers and limits their career opportunities.
"In almost all countries around the world, children are taught an
extra language, but that language is almost always English," said
Ron Unz, author of the initiative.
"It's strange that in the country where English is spoken, they're
not teaching English," he said.
Under the initiative, California's nearly 1.4 million non-English-speaking
students would spend one year learning English with a teacher instructing
mainly in English, using pictures and gestures to help children learn the
language. Afterward, the students would move to all-English classes.
Because students with the same level of English, or non-English, skills
would be placed in the same class, a single room could have students ranging
from first-graders to fourth-graders.
"Every other country that has a sizable immigrant population uses
the same exact sort of method we propose," Unz said. "If it works
everywhere else in the world, why won't it work with English in the United
The prospect of being placed full time in classes with only English speakers
might well shatter the comfort zone that Ayano, 15, and her Japanese friends
Shinji Ozawa, 17, and Yoko Kasai, 16, have found at Eastlake High.
Their mouths dropped open and they shot worried glances back and forth
when told their ESL class might end and they would no longer have their
Japanese interpreter assisting them in their other classes.
"I guess we would learn English faster, but I would not understand
in history class," said Ayano, whose father works at the Canon maquiladora
in Tijuana. "My grades would go down and my parents may be angry."
Well of discontent
Supporters of the initiative say bilingual education has been a 30-year
experiment that has failed and has created a bureaucracy that feeds on
millions of dollars from the state and federal governments.
Years of legislative efforts to reform bilingual education have been fruitless,
leaving the issue ripe for the initiative process, they add.
Even educators who oppose Proposition 227 say there are problems with the
way non-English-speaking students are taught in California schools.
For some districts, bilingual education programs are an afterthought.
Districts that succeed, however, attribute that success to requiring the
same achievement standards that prevail for students in English-only classes.
There hasn't been a systematic statewide tracking of students' progress,
leaving an information vacuum about the academic achievements of non-English-speaking
Two years ago, frustrated Spanish-speaking parents at the Ninth Avenue
School in downtown Los Angeles picketed the school board and kept their
80 children out of school until they were allowed to put their children
in English-speaking classes.
It was that incident that prompted Unz, a millionaire Northern California
computer software businessman, to put together the initiative.
Unz, who lost the Republican primary for governor in 1994, quickly found
the pulse of parents dissatisfied with their children's slow transition
from bilingual classes to those taught only in English.
A program that works
Jamul-Dulzura Superintendent Tom Bishop says he understands the frustration
that parents and taxpayers have with unsuccessful bilingual programs. His
district's bilingual program fell into that category.
Years ago, the district had only a couple of dozen non-English-speakers
enrolled -- it now has 85 -- and the Spanish-speaking students were pulled
out of their classrooms for an hour each day of instruction in Spanish.
But the district's data showed that the students immediately began to fall
behind in first grade, with the gap widening as the years went on. By the
time those students were in the fifth grade, they were two years behind
their English-speaking peers, Bishop said.
After months of study, Bishop replaced the program with a dual-language
system, where Spanish-speakers learn English and English speakers learn
Spanish, meaning that both groups of students should leave sixth grade
fluent in both languages.
Begun seven years ago, the program started with kindergartners and has
expanded through sixth grade.
"Our data support that two-way language is best," said Bishop,
adding that the program won a prestigious Golden Bell award from the California
School Boards Association.
Not only has the two-year gap been erased, all the district's bilingual
students are testing at grade level, Bishop said.
All bilingual students are transitioned into English classes by the fifth
grade, at the latest. And even the students learning English are finding
academic success, he said. For the past couple of years, the district has
had fifth-graders taking both the English and Spanish standardized tests
and scoring above their grade levels.
"As a result, I am disturbed about the prospect of an Unz victory,
which will force me to abandon a program that's working," Bishop said.
"I worry about California doing a political solution to an educational
With nearly 100,000 students limited in English proficiency in the county
-- the third-largest number in the state behind Los Angeles and Orange
counties -- schools in San Diego County are proud of the bilingual programs
they offer because they are as diverse as the communities they serve.
In San Diego Unified alone, 51 of the district's 118 schools have bilingual
On the Bandini campus of Emerson-Bandini Elementary in Southcrest, 7-year-old
Renata Cauchon, an English-speaker, participates in a program where only
Spanish is spoken.
As in any first-grade classroom, the desks, library, windows and learning
stations have labels to help the students read the words.
The only difference: Everything is written in Spanish.
Teacher Claudia Aldrete sits on the floor in the front of the room and
pulls out flash cards with such words as "en, la, malo, oso, ama and
amo." (in, the, bad, bear and to love). The students takes turns practicing
with Aldrete, and work with each other to enter story summaries in their
journals and take vocabulary quizzes with instructional aide Laura Covarrubias.
Renata feels so comfortable with her second language that when she speaks
about the "immersion" program, she prefers speaking in Spanish,
even when her grammar is still developing.
"Me gusta el programa porque tengo buen amigos," she said. (I
like the program because I have good friends.)
"Quiero quedar en clase porque me gusta aprender espanol e ingles,"
Renata said. (I want to stay in class because I like learning Spanish and
Emerson-Bandini would have the option to keep its bilingual program under
the Unz initiative, but it could be a paperwork and classroom planning
nightmare, educators say.
Parents would have to sign waivers every year to keep their children in
bilingual classes, and then hope that 19 other students in that grade level
want to do the same.
Without set numbers of students for each potential bilingual class, school
administrators would have difficulty making out class schedules, and they
would not know if they needed their bilingual teachers.
"We would sign a waiver," said Renata's mother, Lisette. "But
it would be an absolute hassle.
"I think it's real important that children be bilingual and multilingual.
I think we're a little backward and ethnocentric in our culture for not
encouraging other languages."
"I would worry"
Opponents of the initiative say there is no scientific research that shows
one year of immersion in English will give non-English-speaking students
a good foundation in the language.
That's what worries Ayano's Eastlake High School teacher, Maria Ester Lizarraga.
"I would be worried for all these students," Lizarraga said.
"They would have no support."
Lizarraga creates a classroom atmosphere that is considered nurturing,
and students use their new language often. And she provides the push to
get them outside their comfort levels.
For example, students recently went across campus asking 10 people 10 questions
on goals. There were questions about whether they would go on to college,
work while attending school, enter the armed forces, and more.
While it would have been easy for Ayano to work with Shinji and Yoko, each
was assigned to a different group. Then all the students came back and
presented oral reports.
It wasn't enough to listen to the presentations, however. Lizarraga randomly
called on students to ask one question of those reporting their findings.
Seeing the discomfort in the faces as the students asked questions, one
could see they were intimidated. Yet they were learning to think spontaneously
in their new language.
Bilingual education advocates say they will fight for native-language instruction
because they don't want non-English-speaking students to fall behind in
academics while learning a new language.
"In a sense, this (initiative) will put more limits on children because
they won't understand what they're learning," said Maria Martinez,
a San Diego Unified parent and vice president of the countywide bilingual
Martinez, a Spanish speaker who agrees bilingualism is important for her
children's futures, has had both of her daughters in bilingual education
classes, where they have been successful.
Her older daughter, Cynthia, attends San Diego State University and works
as a translator.
"The majority of the public doesn't understand the concept that bilingual
programs teach English," Martinez said. "They are not giving
credit to programs that work.
"The parents who are against the programs maybe got bad instruction,"
she said. "With their hands they can change this. We need to think
of the children that are going to be the work force of tomorrow.
"Really (the proposition) is not the solution," Martinez said.