San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, May 6, 1998

Another View on the Unz Initiative

MY BLOND, BLUE-EYED daughter comes home from the first grade blithely describing the day as ``muy bien.''

She attends an extraordinary public school program in San Francisco called immersion education, in which English- speaking children are mixed with Spanish-speaking children in a six-year program, kindergarten through fifth grade. The goal is for all the kids to become completely bilingual and biliterate.

The Unz initiative would cut it to bits.

We wanted our child to learn Spanish for a clear economic advantage. She will be more prepared to work in the multilingual environment that's developing as the world becomes smaller and the economy becomes more global. We also hoped that giving her a window into other cultures and the language to explore them would expand her world -- intellectually, socially, musically and artistically.

Most of the teaching in her program, at Buena Vista Alternative Elementary School, is in Spanish, particularly in the early years.

Proposition 227 would require that kids who don't speak English must be taught English in an arbitrary one-year period. They may not be taught in Spanish, so Buena Vista's program would be open only to kids who already speak English fluently.

Research on Spanish immersion shows that it works best when about a third of the kids start out speaking only Spanish, about a third speak only English, and the final third are bilingual.

The children whose first language is Spanish are necessary to encourage casual conversation among the students in both languages.

Research on educational outcomes for Spanish-speaking children shows that immersion education serves them better than traditional sink-or-swim type English-only programs, or the one-year crash course that the Unz initiative would mandate.

In addition to the clear advantages for the Spanish-speaking kids, I'm seeing more and more that it is a real privilege for the Anglos to be in this program. My daughter has been at Buena Vista for two years now, and our day-in, day-out exposure to the music, art, language and culture of Latin America has enriched our lives immeasurably. Our family attended a Posada this year, the pageant of door-to-door singing in which Mexicans re-enact Joseph and Marsh seeking shelter on the even of Jesus' birth. The school's Mexican Americans welcomed the other families into this part of their culture.

There's a lot of talk these days about the loss of art and music in our schools. Art, music, drama and poetry seem to be so integral to Latin American culture that these enrichments are just woven into the curriculum. This is one of the things that originally drew me -- a Jewish woman of Eastern European extraction -- into the school. My husband, whose ethnic background is Norwegian, German, Irish and Bohemian, is an amateur musician, and this also was a draw for him.

In the early grades, most instruction is in Spanish -- it's 90 percent Spanish in kindergarten and first grade. By the fifth grade, it's more like 50-50. The English speakers catch on, because they are absorbing Spanish when their brains are most receptive to learning language. The Spanish speakers learn English over the course of several years. At the end of six years, both groups are testing at grade level and above.

The original Spanish speakers become biliterate and bilingual. The original English speakers are quite comfortable in Spanish, and have learned all the literature, history, science, math and social studies that we expect in elementary school students. I have another, less personal concern about the possibility that these immersion programs -- there are about 40 in the state, most Spanish, but also some French, Cantonese and Korean -- will be dismantled. The immersion programs take a situation that is a problem in many other contexts -- kids who don't speak fluent English -- and turn it into a strength. These programs need the native Spanish speakers to work effectively. And those children's strength in Spanish, and their willingness to share it, makes us all stronger.

I don't think immersion education was the original target of the folks who wrote the Unz initiative, but the broadly worded proposition would make Buena Vista's present program illegal. We would all be the poorer.