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 Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.
This November, voters will have a chance to shape the future of bilingual education in California – again.
Tucked among the 17 state ballot initiatives voters will see in November is Prop. 58, which would reverse important pieces of a state law established in 1998 that mandated students in California be taught “overwhelmingly in English.”
Prop. 227, as the 1998 measure was called, didn’t make bilingual education illegal – parents can still enroll students in bilingual schools if they sign a waiver. But it was widely perceived as a ban on bilingual education.
Students who don’t speak fluent English are known officially as English-learners. For schools, the central challenge is how to teach them academic content like math and science while they’re still learning English.
Since 1998, the approach California schools have taken has been to focus first on teaching kids English. Then, after students have an English-language base, they move on to more academically rigorous material.
The problem with this approach is that it takes four to seven years to reach full proficiency in a new language – and if students aren’t learning academic content in the meantime, they’ll fall behind their peers.
That’s why advocates and researchers believe a better approach for English-learners is to teach English and academic content simultaneously, which is the approach dual-language programs take.
If passed, Prop. 58 wouldn’t force schools to offer bilingual instruction, but it would do away with the requirement that parents must sign waivers before enrolling their children in dual-language programs.
The opposition to Prop. 58 includes Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire who orchestrated and drove Prop. 227 when it passed in 1998. In fact, Unz makes the same argument today that he did back then: The faster kids learn English, the better off they’ll be. Passing Prop. 58, he argues, would simply turn bilingual schools into dumping grounds for hard-to-reach students.
Unz’s style is abrasive, but he makes a legitimate point. It takes hard work to establish a quality school. Slapping a bilingual label on it, without regard to meaty concerns like curriculum or staffing, would likely produce dire results.
But the simple fact is that local parents want bilingual education.
The numbers bear it out. The most popular language programs in San Diego Unified turn away hundreds of parents each year. Language Academy, which started in 1994, last year received 362 applications from parents who wanted to enroll their children, and accepted 134 of them. Longfellow K-8, a popular dual-immersion program in Linda Vista, received 276 applications and accepted 117 of them.
Parents who speak only English appreciate dual-language programs because they see the value in knowing more than one language. Being multilingual makes you more competitive in the workplace, and in fact just might make you smarter.
And many parents whose kids speak little English find that a bilingual approach actually helps their kids to read and write more effectively in both languages. That’s important, even from a day-to-perspective for the family. Children whose parents don’t speak English are often employed as de facto interpreters when parents go to the bank or doctor’s office.
Bilingual advocates hope Prop. 58 allows more students to access dual-language programs.
There are already more than 80 schools across San Diego County with long-established dual-language programs.
In Chula Vista Elementary School District, for example, 20 of the district’s 45 schools offer a dual-language programs. And a number of them rank higher than schools that serve students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Chula Vista students feed into Sweetwater Union High School District, which also offers dual-language programs.
That way students who get a strong bilingual foundation in elementary school can continue studying in two languages when they transition to middle and high school. Students in San Diego Unified, on the other hand, don’t have access to dual-language programs after middle school.
You can see all the dual language programs in the county in the map below.
You’ll see a school’s location, the year it was established and what kind of program it offers. I’ve also included the Great Schools ranking. Rankings from Great Schools aren’t perfect academic measures, but they give you a rough guide of how schools stack up. And in the absence of a statewide ranking system, this may be as user-friendly as it gets.
Map by Tristan Loper
As you scan the list, you’ll see numbers listed behind most programs. This pertains to how much instruction students receive in the new language they’re learning versus how much instruction they get in English.
At a Spanish immersion school that offers a 50/50 model, for example, students would spend half their time in English and half their time learning in Spanish.
Spanish is the most common language for dual-language programs in the county, but depending on the district, schools also offer instruction in French, German, Mandarin and Hebrew.
Types of Programs
One-way immersion programs are designed for native English speakers or students who are basically fluent in English. Schools labeled “one-way FL” are immersion programs, where students spend at least half their learning in a foreign language.
Longfellow K-8 in Linda Vista offers a one-way immersion program with a 90/10 model.
That means young students spend 90 percent of their time in learning in Spanish and 10 percent in English. As students progress to older grades, more English instruction is added to the school day.
This is a good fit for parents who want their kids to learn a foreign language and have access to a rigorous curriculum. Longfellow offers a program for gifted and talented students.
The rub is that because the school is designed for native English speakers, students may not be admitted if they’re not already fluent in English. Which is ironic, on account of it being a language school and all.
These programs are designed for students who are still learning English. The goal is to get students fluent in English, but teachers might weave students’ native languages into instruction to help them understand certain concepts.
Typically schools with this model wouldn’t be considered immersion programs because students spend less than half their time in a foreign language.
Two-way immersion programs require a balance of native English-speakers and students who are fluent in a foreign language.
At Sherman Elementary, which offers a two-way immersion program, students spend half the day learning in English and half the day in Spanish.
The goal at Sherman is that every student is able to read, write and speak fluently by the time they leave fifth grade. Last year, 84 percent of students met that goal.
Which model is best?
Ultimately, both one-way and two-way dual-language programs have the same goal: to help students learn to read, write and speak in two or more languages, interact well with people of different cultural backgrounds and meet grade-level standards on their way to graduation. Both can be effective.
For students whose first language isn’t English, though, two-way immersion programs are ideal, said Olympia Kyriakidis, leader of the achievement gap task force for the San Diego County Office of Education. Kyriakidis was principal of a trilingual school in Lakeside Union before she moved over the San Diego County Office of Education.
Two-way immersion is ideal, she said, because two-way models allow all students to learn from native speakers – their classmates. In addition to the instruction they receive in the classroom, students end up teaching each other language at lunch, on the playground or after school.
And on top of the advantages dual-immersion programs offer individual students, researchers believe they can also lead to schools that are more ethnically and socioeconomically integrated.
Which school district wins?
The county’s unsung dual-language hero is Chula Vista Elementary School District.
Not only does it have the highest concentration of dual-language programs in the county – 20 of the 45 district schools offer language programs – students at a lot of those schools are also outperforming their peers in English-only schools.
“Chula Vista does it very well,” said Kyriakidis. “Early on the district embraced dual-language programs, and they continue to watch the data carefully.”
Patricia Pimentel, coordinator for Chula Vista’s language development program, said the district opened Chula Vista Learning Community Charter, its first dual-language program, in 1999.
The school was successful, Pimentel said, and more parents began to see the value in dual-language programs. As schools opened in east Chula Vista, parents pushed for more of them to offer dual-language programs.
And unlike San Diego Unified’s school board, which originally resisted dual-immersion programs like Sherman Elementary, Chula Vista’s school board supported them early on.
Ultimately, said Kyriakidis, the kinds of programs a district offers should match student demographics and parent interest. That is, a district with a high number of English-learners would have the population to support more dual-immersion programs.
The bigger task, Kyriakidis said, is educating parents on the goals of dual-language programs.
“Once parents understand that (dual-language programs) don’t hurt their kids or make it harder for them to learn English, parent interest grows and districts add more dual-language schools to meet demand,” she said.
VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.