San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, August 16, 1998

Some Bilingual Programs Deserve to Be Saved

BY ALL RIGHTS, Brianna Wallace should not be affected by Proposition 227.

The anti-bilingual education initiative approved by voters in June was designed to quickly teach English to non-English speakers. Napa-born-and-bred, Brianna, a loquacious 9-year-old, is nothing if not a whiz in her native language.

However, because Brianna wanted to become bilingual in a Spanish/English setting known as dual immersion, her academic routine of the past five years is in for a Proposition 227 jolt.

The measure states that students who don't speak English must be taught rigorous English for one year and then go into mainstream classes. That eliminates half the students in Brianna's dual immersion class. And without the Spanish-speaking kids to learn from and to teach, the two-way dynamic that makes the program so successful is lost.

While waivers can be sought, they require special circumstances and 30 days in the English-only classes, which school officials and parents of dual immersion students consider too much of an interruption.

The goal in a dual immersion program is to make two groups of students -- English- speakers and non-English-speakers -- academically and linguistically bilingual by the time they leave fifth grade. About 60 dual immersion programs exist throughout California public schools, and while most are Spanish/English, there also are some in such combinations as Korean/English, Japanese/English and Chinese/English. The programs produce students who, over the long haul, have an advantage economically, culturally and academically over their monolingual peers. A 1995 San Jose State study found that seventh-grade students in dual immersion programs at three different schools scored in the 80th and 90th percentiles on English-language reading and math tests. A long-term Virginia study found that dual immersion students maintained grade- level skills in their first language, achieved grade-level skills in their second language after four to five years and sustained their achievement through high school.

A timid state Board of Education has said it has no authority to exempt the non-English- speaking students from dual immersion classes, so school officials and parents panicked about the loss of control over the education they want for their children are seeking other ways to comply with the law.

Two Orange County schools have formally asked for a designation as an alternative school-within-a-school from the state Department of Education, and others, like Brianna's Westwood Elementary in Napa, are considering such a move. Alternative schools are exempt from most education code requirements, including those pertaining to Proposition 227.

Because the state Board of Education refused to get into the fray, the ball is now in the court of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. With fall school reopenings looming, Eastin appears to be the best hope for preventing the disruption of a proven program.

Eastin has made clear that she has no intention of thwarting the will of the voters on Proposition 227. But dual immersion programs demand an exemption, and one of the reasons is that, as Brianna's mother, Deborach Wallace, notes, they represent ``parent choice.'' Students are not routinely assigned to dual immersion classrooms. Their parents must make the effort to apply.

And keeping the double immersion programs would not undermine the spirit of 227, as it was promoted last year. Ron Unz, the initiative's author, was repeatedly asked about whether the measure would mean the end of such programs. In a meeting with the Chronicle's Editorial Board, he said parents who want double-immersion programs for their children should have that option.

Eastin should make sure that happens.

Many parents and students made a six-year commitment to the program and have kept that commitment for two, three, four years. For a school to abandon the dual immersion program now would be a breach of contract.

Eastin's spokesman, Doug Stone, has said that if Eastin is to grant the alternative school designation, she wants evidence that the parents and local school board are overwhelmingly in support. She also wants program officials to have an accountability and evaluation plan to make sure that language and academic standards and goals are met.

Her demands are reasonable, and school districts should have no problems accommodating them.

But time is short. California's schoolchildren are sharpening pencils and digging out dormant backpacks in preparation for a new school year. Students and parents who have chosen a wise path to bilingualism and high academic standards should not be denied that choice.


-- Parents or guardians may ask local school boards to establish an alternative school program in the district.

-- The definition of an alternative school is fairly broad. An alternative school should, the state says, ``recognize that the best learning takes place when the student learns because of his desire to learn. It also should be ``operated in a manner to maximize the opportunity for improvement of the general school curriculum by innovative methods and ideas.''

-- Alternative school enrollment must be open to all students districtwide.

-- After application by a school district, the state superintendent of public instruction may waive certain education code requirements.


-- ``Free school'' in which the emphasis is on increased freedom for teachers and students.

-- Magnet schools that are often focused on a special interest, such as the arts or sciences, career education or vocational skills training.

-- Multicultural, bilingual or ethnic school in which the emphasis is on cultural pluralism and ethnic and social awareness.

-- Street academy, dropout center or pregnancy-maternity center in which programs are targeted for specific student populations.