Minerva Espejo remembered her own rocky start in English after moving from Mexico to San Diego as a teenager. English classes were bewildering; a bilingual class taught by a teacher who barely understood Spanish was even worse. She improved her English at home by pulling out a dictionary night after night to pick up the vocabulary that helped get her to college.

She didn’t want the same troubles for her children. Soured by her own experience, she rejected the idea of a bilingual class and enrolled her kids in a different program until she found out about Sherman Elementary, where kids spend half the day in English and half in Spanish. Her son, who just finished up first grade at Sherman, can explain his homework in English and read to his grandfather in Spanish.

“It’s no good to lose your Spanish and then have to take Spanish classes in high school,” Espejo said. She believes that her children shouldn’t have to give up one language to learn another.

A newly proposed policy would back up Espejo and her views, marking a turning point in thinking about bilingual education in San Diego Unified. Most English learners in the school district are taught mostly in English or placed temporarily in “sheltered” classes with limited help in their native language, meant to transition them to English. Bilingual classes devote more of the school day to a second language and are meant to make children biliterate: fluent and academically savvy in two languages rather than one.

But parents who want to put their child in bilingual classes say they have gotten mixed messages from principals and teachers on whether such classes are educationally acceptable or even legal under California law, reflecting a simmering debate over how best to teach English learners.

The new policy would firmly state that bilingual classes are an option — and a good one. The draft states that all students benefit from being multilingual and asserts that “home language and culture are valued resources that contribute to academic success.” Proponents say it could set the bedrock for the expansion and promotion of bilingual classes. Yet the policy gives few specifics. If the school board decides to go with the policy, the next question is what that will look like, and what resources it will take to make it happen.

“The gold standard — for all kids — is biliteracy,” said school board member Richard Barrera. “But we’re nowhere near the goal right now.”

Bilingual classes are relatively scarce. Only 11 of the 181 schools in San Diego Unified have bilingual programs, according to staff, though other schools offer foreign languages such as Mandarin and Italian. Roughly 4 percent of the English learners in the district are learning both English and their other subjects in their first language, according to the state; another 9.7 percent get some support in their first language but are eventually transitioned into English, leaving their first language behind during class.

Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing has long been debated, both in San Diego and statewide, tangled up with issues of immigration, assimilation and culture. More than a decade ago, California voters decided to limit schools to teaching children in English unless parents petition for a bilingual class in their school, though Latino voters overwhelmingly opposed the proposition.

The issue exploded into view in San Diego last year, when a popular principal was temporarily ousted from Sherman after a school board member balked at his bilingual program, then reinstated after parents protested.

The new policy emerges from a group of bilingual educators and San Diego State professor emeritus Alberto Ochoa, who saw a chance to solidify the backing for bilingual education in writing. Ramon Espinal, a second grade teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary, called it “the beginning — the proper authority to develop a comprehensive program that will do justice to the children.” The board seems likely to approve it, and no organized opposition has emerged yet.

But bilingualism can touch a nerve.

“They’re trying to engineer through political power how we teach language,” said school board member John de Beck, who opposed the state law curbing bilingual classes but is unsure of the new proposal. “How can a school district bypass the law and say, ‘We believe in bilingual education?’ If they want to get at it, they ought to overturn that law.”

It is an emotional debate, both among outsiders and among parents who don’t speak English. There are fathers who harangue their sons to hold on to their native tongue and culture; Mexican mothers who send their children across the border to Catholic schools where only English is spoken, firm in the belief that English — and English alone — is the key to success. Some parents even avoid speaking Spanish to their children, fearful that they will pick up accents and be stigmatized as immigrants.

One bilingual mother, Valentina Hernandez, remembered getting kicked out of kindergarten as a child after scratching her teacher, who spoke only English. Hernandez said the teacher took away a dime she had brought to school to buy candy; she grew more and more frustrated as she tried to tell the teacher to give her dime back. Her own children have been in bilingual classes and are now categorized as gifted.

“People are brainwashed that English is better,” said Hernandez, who represents Hamilton Elementary on a San Diego Unified committee that oversees programs for English learners. “But what they don’t know is that if you’re making cognitive connections in two languages, you’ll be smarter.”

Parents must sign a waiver to allow their children to be taught in another language. Twenty parents with children in the same grade must sign up to create such a class. Bilingual advocates argue that the waivers need to be better publicized for busy parents, and complain that educators sometimes try to dissuade them from seeking bilingual classes. Opponents have countered that teachers and principals who back bilingual programs actively recruit parents for the classes, a practice that researcher Christine Rossell compared to a doctor guiding a patient to take a certain medicine.

Schools and school districts have interpreted the law in wildly differing ways, said Jill Kerper Mora, an associate professor emerita at San Diego State University. Some are strict about the rules on when a parent can obtain a waiver, others exercise a free hand. Other rules have been stretched or rarely enforced because they are simply unrealistic, Mora said, such as limiting the sheltered classes to a year.

Numerous studies show that bilingual programs can be just as effective as English immersion for children who are learning English. One California study found that whether or not a child was immersed in English or a bilingual class was largely irrelevant to their success. Other factors, such as whether teachers used data to adjust their teaching, proved more important than whether English alone was used during class. Advocates argue that bilingualism can actually be better for English learners than English immersion, if done well, while opponents martial other studies to question their findings.

San Diego Unified staffers have tried to remain agnostic in light of that debate, leaving it up to parents. Bilingual education “certainly doesn’t hurt kids and it very well may help them academically,” said Teresa Walter, who oversees language programs in San Diego Unified.

One popular model is dual language immersion, in which a child spends part of the day immersed in one language and part of the day immersed in another. A child familiar with Spanish might first learn about adjectives in a Spanish class, then go to an English class to use what she learned to understand a poem. She might learn about fractions in English, then use them in a science experiment in Spanish. Eddie Caballero, principal of Sherman Elementary, said his English learners are beginning to read faster.

“We’re taking the language they come in with and using it as a bridge to get to the English language,” Caballero said.

Students fluent in English can also attend such schools and grow fluent in a second language, as many children do at the Language Academy near San Diego State. The phenomenon dovetails with a growing interest among English-speaking parents in schools that equip children with a second language. Spanish classes have been popular at a University City magnet school, Mandarin is luring more students to a Point Loma elementary school, and a South Park charter school helps students become fluent in German. Bilingualism is now perceived as a workplace advantage, even more so than knowing English.

Yet the Sherman program proved controversial. Board member Luis Acle complained that bilingual classes would be a crutch for Spanish speakers to avoid learning English, and opined that such classes would be only acceptable in northern areas of the school district, not in largely Latino areas where Spanish is the norm.

His views are shared by critics who fear that allowing English learners to continue in their first language segregates them from other students and slows down their English, the language they need for the workplace and for the standardized tests that shape their futures.

“Students ultimately have to pass the California High School Exit Exam,” Acle said last year. “What language is that exam given in? English. It’s our business as a district to equip children with the necessary English language skills to demonstrate on that exam what they know.”

Such concerns are not the only hurdle for bilingual programs. Starting up more schools like Sherman will take both manpower and supplies. Bilingual teachers are more difficult to find: San Diego Unified had only 103 teachers who worked with English learners primarily in their native language last school year, compared to 1,210 such teachers in the year that voters turned down bilingual education. Scholars say the pipeline of bilingual teachers statewide dried up considerably when the programs dwindled.

Bilingual classes also need textbooks and readers that are designed to build fluency in Spanish, not transition students away from it. Caballero said that Sherman needed different books for his program than were typically available for English learners in San Diego Unified. Since Sherman was a new school, it was buying new books anyhow. But for schools such as Chavez Elementary, where some parents want to restart a bilingual program that was eliminated years ago, budgeting for new books could be a problem.

“They say they support us but they don’t show it,” said Susana Garcia, a parent at the school. “We need materials. We need training for the teachers. The district says, ‘Training we can help you with — materials we can’t.’”

Her hope is that the bilingual policy translates into more than just a piece of paper.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.