The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


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As an education reporter, I’m often up against conventional wisdom.

Take for example, bilingual education. Conventional wisdom suggests the most effective way to learn English is by being forced to learn English. It’s the sink-or-swim model my friends at New America recently wrote about:

Think about it: all children are thrown into schools with a single instruction: “swim” (read: “learn”). In most schools, all students get approximately the same directions and resources in the same setting. This has an internal logic to it: if everyone’s chucked in the same water, with the same objective, the system (“the pool”) must be fundamentally fair and equal right?

And it seems to make intuitive sense: It may feel uncomfortable at first, but students will catch on quicker if their lives depend on it. We’ve all heard the anecdote about someone’s great, great grandfather who came to America barefoot and penniless, not speaking a lick of English, and he did just fine.

But it may be that anecdote is just a story we tell ourselves about how we got here and what it means to be American – one that misses a lot of what we’ve come to learn since.

California is home to 1.3 million non-native English speakers – or “English-learners,” as they’re officially labeled. And sink or swim is essentially what schools across California ask these students to do each day.

Owing to state law established in 1998, the vast majority of the state’s English-learners are placed in mainstream, English-only classrooms with varying degrees of support.

For schools, the central challenge is how to help those students learn English, while also helping them learn core content like math, science and language arts.

Under the current system, thousands of English-learners are sinking.

Data show these students regularly make up an outsize portion of high-school dropouts. Some kids go through the entire school system without ever testing out services designed for English-learners. One study showed that one in four English-learners in Los Angeles Unified doesn’t shed the label after nine years in school.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A robust cache of research shows the benefits of teaching English-learners in their native languages and in English, concurrently.

And effective bilingual programs, like the one at Sherman Elementary in San Diego Unified, prove the programs can benefit native and non-native Spanish-speakers alike. Yet, owing to state law that makes it difficult to open bilingual schools, schools that offer these programs don’t have enough space for all the students who want to come in.

Still, some parents aren’t convinced that bilingual (or trilingual) schools are right for their kids. A reader and grandparent in Lakeside is wrestling with that question.

Question: What is the history of this schooling? Why is it “popular”? Do the kids who start out school in bilingual programs become as fluent in the English language as a student who only learns in English?  — Kelly Donivan, reader

Research published in recent years offers convincing evidence that quality bilingual programs benefit English-learning students. One such study showed that English-learners coming out of bilingual programs in San Francisco outperform those in English-only classrooms. It just takes a little longer.

Often, benefits don’t show up in test scores until about the fifth grade, when English-learners in bilingual programs start to catch up and even surpass their peers in English-only classrooms. This upward trajectory often continues through high school, where students who started as English-learners often outperform native English speakers.

Much of that evidence, however, wasn’t available in the early ‘90s, when parents started to question the value of bilingual education.

Here’s how I described how we got to the current landscape in a recent piece I wrote for New America:

In the ’90s, activist Sister Alice Callahan began organizing Los Angeles parents who’d grown frustrated that kids who attended bilingual schools weren’t learning English fast enough. English meant access, parents realized, and they wanted that for their children.

A story on the parents’ frustrations ran in the Los Angeles Times, where it was seen by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz. Unz later pointed to the story as the inspiration for Proposition 227, a measure he funded that fundamentally reshaped the way English learners are taught in California classrooms.

Prop. 227, which passed in 1998 with 61 percent of the vote, said all students would receive instruction “overwhelmingly in English.”…

The controversial move — which was widely perceived as a ban on bilingual education — shaped the system that remains in place today, even as lawmakers, experts and advocates work to change the law.

The Multilingual Education Act, which also goes by Proposition 58, will go before voters in November. It would reverse important pieces of Prop. 227 and make it easier to open bilingual schools.

That would benefit native-English speakers, too. Historically, bilingual programs in San Diego have catered to affluent families who want their kids to pick up a second or third language. But those schools regularly receive more applications than they have space to offer.

Parents have good reason to see the benefit. Research shows a growing number of employers are looking for bilingual professionals. And, as New America’s Conor Williams points out, bilingual education offers a host of cognitive benefits, including increased cognitive flexibility and conflict resolution skills.

Language schools can structure their programs in a few different ways. Sherman Elementary in Sherman Heights has a two-way immersion program where students spend half of the day learning in English, and half of the day in Spanish.

Longfellow Academy, a K-8 school in Linda Vista, is a full immersion program. Students, most all of them native English speakers, are taught only in Spanish during their first years of school. English instruction is gradually added in later grades.

All of them can work, said Olympia Kyriakidis, who was principal of a trilingual school in Lakeside Union before she moved over the San Diego County Office of Education.

“I think whatever the program, it really comes down to the quality of instruction and the quality of the program,” Kyriakidis said.

Kyriakidis’ former school offered a program in three languages – Spanish, Mandarin and English.

“If students learn all three languages, they can communicate with 75 percent of the world’s population,” she said.

That may sound like a tall order for a child’s brain (it’s an impossible order for my brain), but data shows kids at Riverview Elementary are besting average test scores in the district.

Just over 20 percent of Riverview Elementary students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch, about half the average poverty rate across the district, and most everyone is a native English speaker.

Kyriakidis said that as principal, she tried to make sure that all kids – regardless of their native language – could enroll and benefit from the program.

But the numbers underscore a trend that plays out in Lakeside, just as it plays out in San Diego Unified: Even though language schools offer benefits to native and non-native English speakers alike, affluent parents are most likely to take advantage of them.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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