San Diego Union-Tribune

Thursday, March 12, 1998

Callers Favor Ending Bilingual Education

From the classroom to the living room, bilingual education has struck an emotional chord in the San Diego region.

Nearly 9,000 callers phoned in their opinions in an informal Union-Tribune  survey asking readers to give their views on Proposition 227, the statewide June ballot initiative that would virtually end bilingual education in California schools.

The callers favored the proposition by more than a 2-1 margin.

If the measure is approved, non-English-speaking students will no longer be taught in their native languages or attend English as a Second Language classes. Instead, they would be taught mainly in English for a year, then transferred into regular classes.

Far from being scientific -- one person supporting the initiative claimed to have voted seven times -- the sentiments expressed by Union-Tribune  readers who phoned in echo recent scientific polls on the issue. A statewide Field Poll of 729 registered and likely voters released last month found 64 percent favored the proposition, 27 percent were against, and 9 percent were undecided.

Readers were invited to give their opinion, and they expressed a range of views, from those advocating the end of bilingual programs to those wanting to preserve existing bilingual classes.

But the sentiments of hundreds of callers went beyond that. They not only demanded an end to bilingual education but said those who didn't speak English shouldn't live in the state. Under the shield of anonymity, they left comments such as these:

"I'm tired of having my tax money going to people welcomed into this country at my expense. I don't even think they should get a year of education. If they don't speak the language, they shouldn't be here."

"I see no reason why we should become the United States of Europe or Mexico or France. This is the United States of America. We came here to become American."

Not all callers favoring the initiative were as strident.

Many said that schools should not give non-English speakers special treatment because English speakers who studied in a foreign country were expected to know the language.

Most said that immersing students in English was best. Many said they or their parents came to America not speaking English, attended all English classes and became productive citizens.

Waldemar Heeb immigrated from Germany to Canada and then, in 1955, to the United States and had a very difficult time because he didn't know English. Without knowing the language, he worked menial jobs, he said, but hung in there, went back to school to learn English and succeeded.

"It got to the point where I built six electronics companies and sold the last one in 1993," said Heeb, 68, of Point Loma. "This can be done by anybody.

"If they want to live in this country, learn the language. If they don't want to speak English, let them go back to where they come from."

Janet Manley, a former English as a Second Language teacher at a private language school in San Diego, said schools do children no favors when they don't teach in English.

"I do not speak Cambodian. I do not speak Japanese or German or any of the languages our students speak, and I've discovered that they learn English quickly by not speaking their language," said Manley, 65.

"If someone is living here year-round, for him to speak Spanish, Chinese or another language is a disservice and puts him behind in the work force," said Manley, who lives in North Park. "We need to consider the future, not just what works for them in second grade."

Beverly Hawkinson, of Escondido, remembered the difficult year of French immersion she had as a seventh-grader in Quebec. Her grades dropped from A's to B's, but within three months she bounced back.

"By Christmas, everything was starting to click. I was even dreaming in French," said Hawkinson, 40, who owns an interior design business.

"I'm bright, but I'm no genius. I think a lot of kids, if they have adequate nutrition, can handle it. Kids are more malleable than we give them credit for."

Still others said that English was the language of the United States, and even the world, and those without command of it would be destined to living lives with low-paying jobs.

Don Penniall of Coronado runs an insurance office and wants all children to learn English so they'll be on a level playing field in the work force.

"I think a vast majority are put at a disadvantage because they don't have full command of the English language," said Penniall, 69.

"Some of their parents speak little English and don't force the issue on their kids. If we don't force it on them, they may never get out of it."

On the other side, the sentiments of those who favored keeping bilingual education were just as strong.

Many didn't like that Ron Unz, a Northern California software millionaire who is unmarried, with no children in school and who has never stepped into a bilingual classroom would craft legislation for an entire state.

"I think there is plenty of imagination and good intentions and desire to change things among teachers, who, if given the freedom to experiment free of bureaucracy and legislation, would come up with solutions and not just one method," said Warren Heyer of Encanto.

Heyer, 73, is a retired librarian from Mesa College who said that children exposed to two languages are intellectually superior and pointed to his grandsons who learned French in San Diego Unified's Language Academy in Rolando as proof. They currently are excelling in high school, Heyer said.

Other bilingual education supporters said that students thrown into a classroom where they don't understand the language will learn little.

"If they're trying to get along in a class of English-speaking kids they will be handicapped," said James Wahl, a retired steelworker from Santee. "If we don't take steps to avert that, we'll wind up with second-class citizens who can't keep up, and we pick up the tab with government assistance later on."

Still others argued that people can't learn a foreign language in a year, the time students would have to learn English if the initiative passed.

"A well-educated person can't learn a foreign language in a year. How do we expect kids to learn (academic) content in a year?" asked Gloria Samson, principal at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach.

Samson, who guides a 1,700-student campus where more than 25 percent of the students are English learners, said the best solution is to restructure bilingual education.

"I think we need to look at what we have and find a way to do it better," said Samson, 53. "We failed in (public relations) because we had bilingual education by legislation and, therefore, we were smug.

"We've just learned that it's not forever."