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Parents who tour Sherman Elementary in Sherman Heights are handed a welcome packet and a contract.
It comes with a promise and an expectation: Your son or daughter will be bilingual by the end of fifth grade. Leave before then, and the deal is off. But you, as a parent, will play a role. You will volunteer at the school and attend school events. You will have your child to school every day, on time.
Baked into those lines are the ingredients for Sherman, a bilingual immersion school where every student is a language-learner.
Bilingual immersion programs aren’t new. San Diego Unified has offered them since the ‘70s. But historically they’ve been geared more toward affluent and middle-class students who want to learn another language, said Eddie Caballero, Sherman’s principal.
“A model like this, with this population of students, hadn’t been tried in the district before,” said Caballero.
Nearly 100 percent of Sherman’s students come from low-income families. More than 70 percent are non-native English-speakers.
Minerva Espejo, a mother who has now had three children attend Sherman, remembers when she first heard Caballero’s name. The sense among parents and teachers was that Caballero had set himself up for certain disaster. Or, as she put it, that Caballero had just tied a weight around his neck and was about to jump into the river.
Indeed, success came slow. In 2008, the first year the school opened, its test scores ranked among the district’s lowest. Within the first three years, about half the school’s teachers left.
But, little by little, test scores began to rise. By 2013, the school surpassed the district’s average. That’s an impressive turnaround for any school – not just one for language-learners. It was enough to earn Sherman Elementary a Gold Ribbon distinction this year from the California Department of Education.
And a close look at Sherman’s data reveals something even more remarkable: Students here are acquiring English at a faster rate than students who are placed in English-only classrooms.
Each year, across San Diego Unified, only about 10 to 12 percent of English-learning students reclassify – that is, they score high enough on assessments to be considered fluent in English. This year, at Sherman, 84 percent of fifth-graders reclassified.
Those numbers contradict the assumption that the most effective way to teach students English is by placing them in English-only classrooms – an argument championed by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire who fundamentally reshaped the way English-learners are taught in California.
In 1998, Unz funded Prop. 227, which established that “all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English.”
Unz was driven by the belief that California’s former system was failing English-learners. But since 1998, research has shown that while English-learners in bilingual programs might make slow academic progress in the first few years, starting around fifth grade they tend to surpass their peers in English-only programs. The upward trajectory continues through high school, where they often outperform native English-speakers.
Prop. 227 didn’t just create a system that research now shows might be shortchanging students. It also dismantled the pipeline for bilingual teachers.
That means that even though parent demand for bilingual programs in San Diego regularly exceeds the number of available spots, California doesn’t have the infrastructure, teachers or political will to prioritize bilingual education.
That could change in November, when voters will weigh in on the Multilingual Education Act, a measure that would repeal most of Prop. 227 and make it easier for districts to open a school like Sherman.
To understand how Sherman works, you might have to visit.
Start with the first-grade class classroom, where English-language arts classes look a lot like you’d find in any school. Posted to the wall is student work and vocabulary-builders. After English comes math, then health, all taught in English.
After lunch, students switch classrooms. There, it’s Spanish-language arts, science and social studies, taught in Spanish.
Teachers stack classes so that vocabulary in one class complements vocabulary for the others. First-grade students might write a paragraph, in English, about their favorite seasons. Later in the day, when they go to Spanish-language arts, they might write a similar assignment about habitats.
Students learn to recognize and build on the similarities between languages.
Sprinkled throughout the day is support for learning the mechanics of language. That goes two ways at Sherman – students get support in English or Spanish, depending on their needs.
Even though most teachers are bilingual, they stick to the script. They don’t talk to children outside of the language they use to teach.
It all seems to be working. But Caballero will be first to tell you that it’s a result of trial and error.
Some of the first teachers who came to Sherman, Caballero said, thought they’d be handed a magic curriculum with everything they needed to know. But they soon discovered they would have to help create the curriculum themselves. That was more work than they wanted to take on, and roughly half the teachers who came in were gone three years later.
“When I first started recruiting, I thought I was going to need a team of rock-star teachers to run this school. But what I learned was that it’s not necessarily the rock stars I’m after – it’s teachers who are responsive and want to work as a team.”
If you do visit, you might notice that staff members, including Caballero, enroll their own children at the school.
“That’s important,” Caballero said. “It says to parents: If the school is good enough for their kids, it’s good enough for me.”
Parent engagement at high-poverty schools often lags. Not at Sherman. Here, roughly 95 percent of parents take part in school activities and volunteer for committees.
Ask Espejo why that is, and she’ll point to Caballero’s transparency. All parents see data that tell them how well their children are doing. He opens up the books and shows parents where he is spending the money.
“Going through the process of becoming a principal, you’re always taught that you’re the instructional leader. And that means you’re one person who’s going to make all the decisions for the program. So when people ask critical questions, it can feel like your authority is being questioned,” he said. “But I think it comes down to: Do you feel secure enough that you can become a facilitator of shared decision-making?”
That kind of collaboration is what drew Johnathan Morello to the school. Morello, whose child is a native English speaker, shadowed Caballero as part of a principal training program. He was so taken by Caballero that he enrolled his son in the school’s transitional kindergarten program, and plans to keep him at Sherman.
“(Caballero) is bilingual and bicultural, so he can navigate both worlds. When he runs those meetings, he gives options. So parents really do sense that they’re helping run the school,” Morello said.
Asked if his son is speaking Spanish yet, Morello laughed. “Yeah. He speaks Spanish all the time. I think he reads more in Spanish than he does in English.
Espejo’s only concern is what happens next. When her oldest moved to middle school, Espejo realized the district doesn’t really offer students a way to continue bilingual progress.
Sherman falls in the San Diego High cluster, so students typically transition to Roosevelt Middle School, and then to San Diego High, each of which offers some advanced classes in Spanish.
But the quality of those classes depends on the program and the teacher. If the teacher isn’t a native-Spanish speaker, the class can feel like the teacher is translating directly from an English-Spanish dictionary.
“We have a number of bilingual programs at elementary school, but we don’t know have any way to really continue that at the middle- and high-school levels. It’s a problem,” said San Diego Unified school board trustee Richard Barrera.
Part of the challenge, Barrera said, lies with an obstacle created by Prop. 227. Because state law says English-only classrooms must be the dominant model, parents wanting to enroll their kids in a bilingual school must sign a waiver.
Waivers are a pain, said Patricia Gándara, a research professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. But the bigger problem with Prop. 227 is that it created a dearth of bilingual teachers.
Today, California has about a third as many credentialed, bilingual teachers as it did in 1997, Gándara said. Yet, state schools now serve 11,000 more English-learners.
Before Prop. 227, around 29 percent of the state’s English-learners were enrolled in bilingual education. In 2000, that dropped to 11 percent. Today, it’s around 5 percent.
“Any principal who wants to open a bilingual immersion program has to be very committed to it. They must mount a strong program amidst undersupported infrastructure,” Gándara said.
Numbers bear out how well the current system is working for English-learners in San Diego Unified. Year after year, English-learners post some of the lowest graduation rates and highest dropout rates in the district. More than 5,000 English-learners have been in San Diego schools for six or more years and still aren’t considered fluent in English.
The Multilingual Education Act would repeal most of Prop. 227. A yes vote would mean parents will no longer have to sign waivers, which should make it easier for bilingual schools to open.
This would help, Gándara said, but creating a system that truly delivers on bilingual education may require legislative remedies – such as creating incentives for teachers to pursue their bilingual credentials.
It also might mean that districts think outside the box when it comes to recruitment. Gándara doesn’t take long to think of an example: In 2011, the state started offering a Seal of Biliteracy, which recognizes biliterate high school students. Since then, more than 100,000 high school students have graduated with the seal.
“There you go. That’s potentially 100,000 bilingual teachers. There is no reason at all we should not be looking to them,” Gándara said.